published Saturday, April 5th, 2014

Guns in schools? Georgia bill becomes battleground

Maura Friedman and Tyler Jett Interactive
Poll
Should teachers be allowed to carry guns in school?

Even if a bill that could bring more guns into schools is signed into law, don’t expect to see a flood of North Georgia teachers strolling to class armed.

Several local officials say they don’t think their school boards will implement a key component of the Safe Carry Protection Act, which would allow them to give staff members permission to bring weapons onto a K-12 campus. The act passed the Georgia Legislature two weeks ago. Now, Gov. Nathan Deal has until April 29 to sign the bill, veto it or let it automatically become law.

If Deal does not veto the bill, teachers and other staff members will be able to ask their local school boards for permission to carry guns onto their campuses. If the school board accepts the request, the gun-owning teacher will go through accuracy training and a review of Georgia’s self-defense laws.

The Safe Carry Protection Act is one of several laws aimed at giving teachers and administrators permission to carry guns in the wake of the Sandy Hook Elementary School mass shooting in Connecticut that killed 20 children and six adults in December 2012. Seven states — including Tennessee — passed such bills last year, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, and lawmakers in 17 states introduced 36 more bills intended to put guns in schools this year. That group includes Georgia.

The thinking behind these laws has been touted by gun rights groups for years: The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy (or teacher, or principal, or coach) with a gun.

In the Peach State, lawmakers who sponsored the Safe Carry Protection Act say the bill will help protect poor, rural schools that can’t afford to pay for professional security.

“That’s why this bill exists: budget issues,” said Rep. Rick Jasperse, R-Jasper. “This is in order to protect their school, to make sure someone is there to defend it.”

However, some North Georgia school officials say they don’t see a need for armed teachers, at least not here. Larry Winters, who represents the area on the Georgia Board of Education, said he talked with about five local superintendents about the bill, and none of them was interested in giving weapons to their teachers.

Because the bill leaves the decision up to individual school boards, Winters declined to give his opinion on the issue. He said he has no sway in the matter.

Likewise, the Georgia School Board Association does not hold an official position on the bill. Director of Communications Justin Pauly said the association has not heard any school boards express interest in allowing guns in schools.

Melody Day, the superintendent of Chickamauga City Schools, said she does not expect the school board to act on the law, even though the city does not have school resource officers to protect students. She said there is no need for guns on campus.

“At any moment, anything could occur,” she said. “But we are fortunate to be in a small town. The police can respond quickly.”

Catoosa County Schools Superintendent Denia Reese, meanwhile, would not say whether her district will allow teachers to have guns. But she said in a statement that administrators feel confident in the district’s seven school resource officers. Before making any decision about guns, Reese said, the school district would need to consider the costs — liability costs, training costs, insurance costs.

If Deal signs the bill into law, Georgia will join Tennessee, which passed a similar law last year. So far its impact is unclear.

Ben Torres, director of research and communication at the Tennessee School Boards Association, said he does not know of any school districts that have allowed guns on campuses. But Torres added that the association does not keep track of schools with weapons.

In June 2013, Bradley County Schools Director Johnny McDaniel told the Times Free Press that many teachers and parents supported the idea of bringing guns on campus. McDaniel did not return multiple calls this week seeking comment and an update on the situation.

In Georgia, some lawmakers debate how new this guns-in-schools law actually is. Jasperse points out that a current law — Official Code of Georgia Annotated 16-11-127.1(c)(6) — allows people to bring weapons to campus if a “duly authorized official of the school” gives them written permission.

“It’s really the same, when you get right down to it,” he said.

But Rep. Paul Battles, R-Cartersville, said that isn’t the proper way to interpret the current law. Battles, who wrote the guns-in-schools section of the Safe Carry Protection Act, said the law is intended only for weapons used for education — a historian bringing a Civil War-era sword to class, for example.

Pauly, with the Georgia school board association, said Battles’ interpretation is correct.

But an attorney with the gun rights group Georgia Carry said that, regardless of that law’s intention, it is written in a way that allows teachers to potentially bring guns to school.

“Administrators can authorize anyone to carry under current law,” said John Monroe, who testified in multiple committee hearings about the Safe Carry Protection Act. “If my hunting buddy is a principal, he can authorize me to carry in his school. No training requirement, no nothing.”

Still, Jasperse says the Safe Carry Protection Act will make getting guns in schools easier because the new law is clearer than the old one. There was the debate about that law’s intention, of course, but there was also a debate about who could authorize people to carry guns. The current law just says the permission must come from a “duly authorized official of the school.”

But who is a “duly authorized official”? The principal? The guidance counselor? The coach? The law doesn’t say.

The new law is specific: The school board will decide who has guns, and who doesn’t. It also will decide how much training the gun owners must undergo.

Critics say this is dangerous. Frank Rotondo, executive director of the Georgia Association of Chiefs of Police, argues that some school boards may not require their teachers to become as skilled as they should be.

Also, according to the bill, if a gun owner is not carrying the weapon while on campus, he or she must store it in a safe or a lock box. Rotondo says students are notorious for stealing from their teachers. What if they find something loaded with bullets?

Larry Morris, chairman of the Parent Council at Ringgold High School, says the training for teachers won’t be enough. They’ve spent most of their careers learning how to communicate concepts, not shoot, he said.

“That’s not what their profession is,” said Morris, the parent of an 11th-grader. “Their profession is to teach our students. … They haven’t been to boot camps that train you on how to handle the escalation of force. We’re asking them to do things that maybe they’re not trained to do.”

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