Tim Steller: Locked-up firearms in schools just could work

2013-03-13T00:00:00Z Tim Steller: Locked-up firearms in schools just could workTim Steller Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
March 13, 2013 12:00 am  • 

Stashing and locking guns in schools may seem a laughable response to school shootings like the one in Newtown, Conn.

It's certainly not clear a locked-away gun would have allowed an employee at Sandy Hook Elementary School to stop attacker Adam Lanza.

But it's not an idea to throw away - if it's part of a broader effort to make schools safer. As a parent of schoolchildren, I vote a qualified "all of the above" on the several school-safety measures the Legislature is considering, even this one.

Other bills would boost funding for school resource officers, increase the number of school counselors, require reporting of dangerous students to police, and permit staff to have guns in rural schools far from police stations. The only proposals I would reject are those to allow teachers and staff to carry firearms while working at school. That's inviting trouble.

Most of these proposals are reactive, and some are shallow, but we shouldn't expect Arizona's Legislature to solve the cultural problems that lead to violent outbursts in schools.

To appreciate the merit of a locked-up gun at school, just imagine your children are in a school that's being attacked. It's very improbable but possible.

I've taken that scary mental trip, as many parents have recently, and decided that in such a nightmare scenario I'd want to know the school has a plan for trying to secure students, and that a school resource officer - that is, a police officer who works at the school - is there and can respond before more police arrive.

But we're not going to put a police officer in every school. It's expensive and in many cases would be a waste of money because there's only so much an officer can do all day, especially at schools where the principal can handle disciplinary issues.

So it would be comforting to know someone at the school has a chance, albeit small, to stop the attack.

Two keys are the training of the person and the security of the guns. Arizona Attorney General Tom Horne initiated the idea, introduced by state Rep. David Stevens of Sierra Vista, both Republicans. Much of the scoffing comes from the idea that any old staff member - a "lunch lady with a gun" - would emerge guns a-blazing at the first sign of trouble.

That's not the idea, though I'd be OK with the lunch lady having access to a gun locked in the school if she is well-trained to respond as a last resort to an armed attack. That's the intent of this bill, Horne said: A "massacre intervention" tool.

It's also voluntary - individual schools and districts would decide whether to use this tool.

"The gun would be kept in a secure, locked box, so that kids can't get it, but close to the person who's trained," Horne said.

The person in the school would get 24 hours of training. This amount sounds small to me, but it's what criminal investigators in the Attorney General's Office say would be necessary, Horne said. Those investigators, who are sworn police officers, would be the ones to carry out the training.

Andrew Morrill, president of the Arizona Education Association, doesn't like Horne's idea.

"The gravitational pull toward firearms on campus is really disturbing and won't lead to increased safety," said Morrill, who taught at Marana's Mountain View High School for 17 years.

Morrill favors proposals by House Minority Leader Chad Campbell to restore funding for school resource officers that was stripped away in earlier years. Campbell's plan also includes increasing spending on school counselors, who could be key in detecting students who could become violent.

But Campbell is a Democrat, so his sensible, if expensive, approach is going nowhere - a shame. Fortunately, Gov. Jan Brewer is also pushing more funding for school resource officers, though the $3.6 million she wants to spend is one tenth of what Campbell proposed.

Rep. John Kavanagh's bill that would require teachers to report dangerous students to police is problematic because of the power it gives, as well as the responsibility it puts on teachers.

All of these proposals have some merit and can be tweaked to highlight the good and minimize the bad. Yes, expecting Arizona's Legislature to do that is risky, but I don't think it's more risky than doing nothing.

Contact columnist Tim Steller at tsteller@azstarnet.com or 807-8427. On Twitter @senyorreporter

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