AUGUSTA, Maine — The National Rifle Association’s call Friday to deploy armed security personnel in U.S. schools diverted the national debate, ignited by last week’s Sandy Hook shootings, away from gun control and mental health to how fortified schools should be.
While some Maine educators and legislators say deploying armed guards or allowing more freedom to carry guns in schools merit consideration, others argue that the NRA’s focus on school security hijacks what should be a much broader discussion about curtailing mass shootings, no matter where they happen.
In the NRA’s first public statement since the Dec. 14 shooting that claimed the lives of 20 first-graders at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., Wayne LaPierre, the group’s executive director, called on Congress to “act immediately, to appropriate whatever is necessary to put armed police officers in every school.” He also announced that the NRA would fund a National School Shield Program, directed by former U.S. Rep. Asa Hutchinson, R-Ark., to create a model security system that schools could adapt to their needs.
Paul Stearns, president of the Maine School Superintendents Association, said the group hasn’t taken a formal position on the matter. In his role as superintendent of School Administrative District 4, which includes six towns in the Guilford region, Stearns said, “I think that every strategy for maximizing the safety of our students, teachers and educational staff safe must be explored in a rational manner. … Armed security personnel, hired and trained with the highest degree of professionalism, may be a viable piece of a multi-faceted solution to minimize these horrific incidents.”
Brewer Superintendent Daniel Lee believes it’s time to apply homeland security protocol in schools. In a BDN commentary, Lee advocated creating a national Directorate of School Safety that would tap a federal tax on gun and ammunition sales to fund “highly trained federal school safety officers in every public school in this nation.”
Rep. Matthea Daughtry, D-Brunswick, a first-year legislator who will serve on the Education Committee, said the NRA’s proposal diverts attention from what should be legislators’ focus in the aftermath of the Newtown shooting.
“I am glad that the NRA finally broke their silence over the Newtown tragedy but am disheartened by their proposal,” she said. “This is not the time for knee-jerk reactions that serve to hyper-polarize and take advantage of this tragedy. … I am gravely concerned about having firearms in our schools. This is no time for an arms race. When we are struggling to fund public education, it is unimaginable that we would make armed officers in schools a priority.”
No one knows how much securing Maine schools would cost. With curtailment looming, a Medicaid budget shortfall in the $100 million range for the current fiscal year and pessimistic revenue forecasts for the next biennium, state funding will be scarce. And while the NRA called on Congress to pay to place armed security officers in U.S. schools by the time students return in January, automatic spending cuts that will take effect Jan. 1 if no fiscal cliff deal is reached make federal funding a near impossibility.
Daughtry also said she’s “completely disgusted” by the NRA’s proposal to create a national database of people with mental illness. Such a registry would likely violate federal laws designed to protect privacy and shield people from discrimination based on medical conditions.
The Maine Education Association, which represents the state’s public school teachers, issued a statement Friday to affirm its opposition to allowing guns in schools.
“We should not be wasting time discussing misguided ideas about filling our schools with firearms,” Lois Kilby-Chesley, the union’s president, said in the release. “Lawmakers at every level of government should dismiss this dangerous idea and instead focus on measures that will create the safe and supportive learning environments our children deserve.”
The MEA also called Friday for increased access to mental health services and renewed focus on preventing bullying.
One Maine legislator, Rep. Brian Duprey, R-Hampden, called the NRA’s suggestion “a decent proposal.” He had submitted a bill to allow people with concealed weapon permits to carry their weapons onto school properties. He said Friday, however, that he withdrew the proposal, saying the timing wasn’t right so soon after the deadly shootings in Newtown, Conn.
“I don’t think the political will’s even there to have the discussion right now,” he said. “I don’t want to take anything away and cause too much heartbreak. It’s probably the wrong time for discussion now.”
Duprey said he’s not ready to abandon the issue altogether, however.
“I just think it’s crazy that people can carry everywhere except schools,” he said.
Duprey said he’s expecting fellow lawmakers will propose a number of gun control measures when the new legislative session starts up next month.
“Hopefully we’ll have some kind of discussion on school security, which will come up with a common-sense approach,” he said. “I’m sure there will be plenty of gun control bills out there, and I’ll just bring my discussion into that realm so we can have a full-fledged discussion.”
Democrats who recently assumed legislative leadership positions called Friday for “a comprehensive review” of school safety in Maine before considering any legislation. They have yet to determine what form the review will take, but Assistant Majority Leader Jeff McCabe, D-Skowhegan, said the process would include “a review of gun safety and mental health in a way that involves listening to experts.”
McCabe, who has two young children and whose wife is a teacher, said input from parents, school boards and educators will complement information solicited from “experts.” Local police and Maine Department of Public Safety, which Thursday issued a statement that its investigations revealed “no credible threats against Maine schools,” will play pivotal roles, he said.
“It’s important to slow down the conversation and talk to experts and make an informed, reasonable decision after talking to people on both sides,” he said.
House Minority Leader Ken Fredette, R-Newport, agreed. “We will be looking at a response to this tragedy in a comprehensive way, but it needs to be done after all the facts are known and everyone has had a chance to process what happened,” he said. “ As discussed earlier this week, legislative leadership of both parties will be talking together, and it’s best not to discuss specifics until we’ve had a chance to sit down.”
Any conversation about school safety must include better public education about firearms, according to McCabe and George Smith, former leader of the Maine Sportsman’s Alliance.
“For two decades, I tried to get firearms instruction into the schools,” Smith said. “I’m flabbergasted that people in Maine don’t think we should educate children in our schools about guns.”
McCabe and Smith both said they own multiple firearms. Neither belongs to the NRA.
Smith, of Mount Vernon, said McCabe and House Speaker Mark Eves, D-North Berwick, approached him about participating in the school safety review and educating lawmakers about firearms. He expressed his willingness to help. but urged against creation of a task force because “everybody comes with their own interests and a defensive posture.”
“I don’t know what the answer is, but gun owners need to be willing to participate in this discussion and be open to everything,” Smith said. “We should be willing to look at giving up high capacity magazines.”
The NRA and President Obama, who called for a renewal of an assault rifle ban that expired in 2004, both played to their ideological bases and chose “political trickery” over public good, Smith said.
“It just disappoints me so much,” he said. “My wife is a first grade teacher and they asked them to lock the classrooms this week. I can’t imagine a future where we lock our kids in schools.”
BDN reporter Matthew Stone contributed to this report.