GOP pushes gun bills critics say imperil student safety, education quality
School busses assemble in the shape of an assault rifle in Houston on July 14, 2022. The protest was organized by Change the Ref, a group that advocates for gun control. Handout photo via Change the Ref
Guns would make it onto school campuses and into lesson plans under Republican-backed proposals that are echoes of legislation that was rejected last year.
One bill would shield parents who take their firearms with them into gun-free school zones from prosecution if they have a concealed carry permit. Currently, unloaded guns can be left in a locked car but taking loaded weapons into schools is punishable with a class 1 misdemeanor and up to a class 6 felony if the person also violated the drug free school zone guarantee.
A similar bill pushed last session would have decriminalized having loaded guns on school grounds, but it ultimately failed to make it out of the Senate.
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The sponsor of Senate Bill 1331, Sen. Janae Shamp, a Republican from Surprise, frames the proposed law as a protection for parents who forget to leave their weapons behind but have no ill intent. She asked lawmakers on the Senate Education Committee to imagine a mother who, upon news of her child’s injury at school, forgets she’s carrying a gun in the rush to respond.
“You go racing to the school, (and) you happen to have a concealed carry weapon in your purse because you are a mother who protects her children with her Second Amendment right,” she told the Senate Education Committee on Feb. 8. “You are now possibly looking at anywhere from a class 1 misdemeanor to a class 6 felony.”
Shamp dismissed criticism that the presence and possible handling of a gun could lead to accidental injuries by pointing out that her bill only protects people with concealed carry permits, meaning they’ve undergone a required training course to obtain that permit. Adults in Arizona are legally allowed to carry a concealed firearm without a permit, but this bill would not protect them from prosecution if they brought a weapon onto a school campus.
“People that have taken the training (and) possess the permit, they exist at, what I would say is, a higher level, because you know that they’ve actually been through an authorized course,” she said.
To receive a concealed carry permit, Arizonans must be at least 21 years old, pass a background check, pay a $60 application fee and take a class that can be as short as three hours. Permit-holders can conceal carry in some city parks, all national parks in Arizona and buy firearms in the state without a federal background check. The permit is valid in 37 other states as well as Arizona, and it lasts for five years.
Sen. Christine Marsh, D-Phoenix, asked whether the bill would conflict with the federal Gun-Free School Zones Act of 1990, which prohibits knowingly possessing a loaded firearm in schools. Shamp rebutted that the federal law already has a carveout for those with state-issued licenses.
But school- and gun safety advocates weren’t convinced.
Elijah Watson, a public education advocate and member of student coalition Keep Arizona Blue, said the language in the bill doesn’t specify that parents must keep their weapons concealed while on school grounds, which could present a problem. Increasing the visibility and presence of firearms in schools, amid a record national rise in school shootings, isn’t a good idea, he said.
“It creates an increased risk of students and faculty being exposed to dangerous weapons, a risk that is already elevated due to a continuous epidemic of school shootings across America,” Watson said.
Maya Zuckerberg, president of Arizonans for Gun Safety noted that the majority of school shootings are caused by students, and increasing the opportunities for them to obtain a weapon would only exacerbate that danger.
“While a parent may be carrying with the best of intentions, it’s not hard to imagine a student or group of students being able to gain possession of a firearm from a distracted parent in a busy classroom, and carry out a tragedy,” she warned.
Zuckerberg added that the bill’s heightened threat of school shootings is detrimental for academic performance.
“How is a student supposed to focus on their education when they’re terrified of their classmates gaining access to a gun?” she asked.
Another guns-in-schools measure is House Bill 2332, a near identical copy of a proposal introduced last year that critics accused of merely being a foothold in schools for the National Rifle Association. That version failed to make it out of the Senate.
The new iteration similarly mandates schools implement a gun safety program for middle and high school students which has been in operation for more than 30 years — the NRA’s Eddie Eagle GunSafe program, developed for elementary students, has been in use for 35 years.
Language in the bill defines acceptable curriculum as one that was crafted by a “task force made up of educators, school administrators, curriculum specialists, urban housing safety officials, clinical psychologists, law enforcement officials and firearms safety experts from a national rifle association,” the majority of which is pulled directly from the Eddie Eagle’s webpage description.
Rep. Selina Bliss, R-Prescott, said her bill’s intent is to address the epidemic of accidental gun deaths among teens. A report from the Arizona Child Fatality Review Program found that firearm injuries were in the top three causes of preventable minor deaths in the state in 2021.
“The problem this bill is trying to solve is firearm accident prevention, through education, so that our kids are safe from firearm injuries and death,” she told lawmakers on the House Military and Public Affairs Committee on Feb 6.
Bliss said any lessons originating from her copycat bill should be focused on the premise of “stop, don’t touch, go find an adult,” which is nearly an exact quotation of Eddie the Eagle’s catchphrase.
Those uncanny similarities weren’t lost on Ashley Chambers, who asked lawmakers on the committee to reject the proposal. Codifying it into law, she warned, would open schoolhouse doors to the NRA, which would be exactly the opposite of teaching kids about gun safety. The American Academy of Pediatrics reviewed the Eddie the Eagle program and concluded it was ineffective, and the program has weathered accusations of luring children into gun culture.
“When I have a heart problem, I go see a cardiologist. I don’t see someone who has a tangential relationship with the heart, and I definitely don’t see a doctor that works at a pork factory,” she said.
If the bill’s true goal is gun safety, Chambers said, then it should seek to emulate programs advanced by organizations dedicated to that aim, like Everytown for Gun Safety, Moms Demand Action, or the Sandy Hook Promise — not parrot NRA lines.
Isela Blanc, a former Democratic state lawmaker from Tempe, spoke on behalf of the Arizona Education Association, the state’s largest teacher’s union. Teachers, Blanc said, didn’t sign up to oversee lessons about gun safety.
“What they signed up for is to teach English, math and science,” she said. “What you’re asking schools to do is include gun safety training as part of the curriculum.”
That responsibility, she said, should fall on the parents, not on underpaid teachers — especially when the bill doesn’t include any additional funding to cover the expense. Blanc added that things like fire safety and active shooter drills already take enough time out of the school day.
“Let’s stop putting the pressure on the educators and our public school systems,” she said. “The onus is on the folks that own the guns.”
Despite unanimous opposition from Democrats on both committees, both the bill allowing guns on school grounds and the one mandating gun safety curriculum were approved on party lines. If neither earns bipartisan support moving forward, it’s unlikely that Gov. Katie Hobbs will sign them, as she has vowed to approve only measures that earn the votes of both parties.
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