The Enid News and Eagle, Enid, OK

February 9, 2013

Arming teachers: State legislators moving ahead with bills to put guns in schools

Staff and wire reports
Enid News & Eagle

— While a special school safety commission formed after the massacre of schoolchildren in Connecticut continues its work, Oklahoma legislators are pushing ahead with their own proposals to allow for armed teachers and more guns on school campuses.

A House committee last week passed a measure giving school boards the option to allow teachers who receive law enforcement training to carry weapons into schools, and several other bills have been introduced to allow those with a handgun license to bring guns onto school campuses.

Meanwhile, the school safety commission is beginning to formulate its own ideas about how to make schools safer, with no mention of guns, which is raising concern among some pro-gun activists the commission could be used to provide political cover for legislative leaders to quietly kill some of the more far- reaching gun proposals.

“I would think that possibility is there, but from where we’re at, we’re just going to plow through no matter what the school safety commission says,” said Don Spencer, the deputy director of the Oklahoma Second Amendment Association, which has pushed for expanded gun rights in Oklahoma in recent years.

When immigration became a hot-button political topic two years ago, legislative leaders formed a special committee on immigration and essentially stymied numerous immigration-related bills while the panel held hearings. The committee ultimately recommended no changes to state law, and Republican leaders avoided a lengthy and protracted battle over a politically thorny issue.

Gun bills also can prove a politically delicate issue for many GOP lawmakers, who want to show support for gun rights, but also not alienate business leaders, who worry about Oklahoma’s image as a gun-toting state or education officials who bitterly oppose having more guns in schools.

Rep. Joe Dorman said he has no doubt the school safety commission was created to provide political cover for House and Senate leaders, to quietly kill some of the more extreme gun-related measures.

“I feel this commission was formed knowing full well there would be a lot of different gun bills,” said Dorman, D-Rush Springs. “It was designed to bring increased scrutiny and rational discussion and common sense to the table.”

The commission includes appointees of the House speaker, Senate president pro tem and governor, but no legislators, and is headed by Lt. Gov. Todd Lamb, a former Secret Service agent. Members include educators, law enforcement, mental health experts and others, and Lamb said so far the group has not recommended any gun-related legislation or taken a position on any pending firearms bills.

“I’m still optimistic that we’ll have concrete recommendations for the Legislature,” Lamb said. “That’s the purpose of the commission.”

The panel just completed its second of six planned meetings, and Lamb acknowledged that so far, the meetings have been “presentation heavy.” And while he said the group is far from reaching its final recommendations, he said so far the top recommendations involve training for school staff, school safety planning, improved quality and access to counseling services, modernizing building standards, and regular meetings of local safe-schools committees.

Rep. Mike Jackson, R-Enid, said he believes the commission was formed to help protect school children.

“I believe the commission was formed to try and come up with best possible solution to moving forward to protect kids and school,” he said. “I hope they come up with something that will work. I know there are other states, including Texas, that have come up with a viable solution.”

Jackson said Oklahoma’s support for the Second Amendment is prominent and the Legislature typically passes some laws each session related to guns.

“I think there will be a few gun bills that go into law this year. There normally is each year,” he said. “I hope that at the end of the day, the commission and Lt. Gov. Lamb are successful.”

Sen. Patrick Anderson also expressed his faith in the commission to make the right decisions.

“Everybody is deeply concerned about school safety,” he said. “We want to make the best decisions we can, and I have complete confidence in the commission.”

Anderson, R-Enid, said the makeup of the board and Lt. Gov. Lamb’s experience as a former Secret Service agent will allow it make the best decisions possible.

“I think they’re going to come up with a solution that will enhance safety and address everyone’s concerns about our public schools, he said.

Anderson said the Legislature is moving ahead on several pieces of legislation involving guns. One such bill would authorize local school districts to make decisions about allowing teachers that have completed Council on Law Enforcement Education and Training certification to carry a firearm in their school buildings.

Rep. John Enns, R-Enid, could not be reached Saturday for comment.

Spencer’s group this year is endorsing two separate proposals: one that would allow individuals with a handgun license to leave their gun in their car in school parking lots, and another to give private schools the authority to determine if a license holder can bring a gun onto their campus.

Dozens of other firearms bills would make it easier to get a handgun license, ease penalties for violations and expand where a licensee could bring and carry their weapon.

The bill to give individual districts the option of arming teachers who have completed a 240-hour police training course, which already passed the House Public Safety Committee and is awaiting a hearing before the full House, could gain some momentum, despite opposition from many school officials.

House Speaker T.W. Shannon last week described the bill as “reasonable,” and several sheriffs who attended the meeting said they support the concept.

“On the merit, I like it,” said Shannon, R-Lawton. “It’s a local-control decision, and so I think it’s more than reasonable that we consider that, but again it’s early in the session and it still has to make its way through a long process.”

Longtime educator Trixy Barnes, who spent 40 years as a classroom teacher in Texas and Oklahoma, said she generally is hesitant to support the idea of more guns in schools, but said she could warm up to the idea of carefully selected teachers with the proper background and training carrying a weapon in school.

“I feel that if you have someone trained and who understands the law, and when and how to use a weapon, it can make your classroom safer,” Barnes said. “I still have reservations that those teachers would have to be chosen very carefully.”