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, raising concern among some pro-gun activists that 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 can also 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 commonsense 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.
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 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 is generally 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.”