In the wake of an elementary school shooting in Newtown, Conn., last year, South Dakota has decided to try to deter gun violence in its schools by allowing teachers to pack heat. Gov. Dennis Daugaard signed the bill into law last week. Twenty-four other states are considering similar “school sentinel" bills this year, but South Dakota is the first to legalize it since the Newtown massacre.
Eight states (Hawaii, New Hampshire, Alabama, Arizona, California, Oregon, Rhode Island and Utah) allow concealed firearms in schools, according to Lauren Heintz, an education research analyst with the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL). South Dakota's law is different from all others, though, because it specifically permits school employees -- including volunteers -- to carry guns in schools, Heintz said.
In theory, the school sentinels law is distinct in that it doesn't require firearms in schools to be concealed. But state Sen. Tim Begalka, a sponsor of the legislation, said school districts have the discretion to require guns are concealed, and he expects they will.
"It could be either way, but it was pretty much understood that they would be concealed," Begalka said.
The new state law gives school district boards the ability to decide whether they want to allow their school employees and volunteers to carry guns. All changes, though, must be approved by a local referendum as well.
Proponents point out that the new law requires school employees to take a training course to avoid accidents. Nonetheless, the law -- notable for its promotion of gun ownership in schools at a time when some states are considering gun restrictions -- drew nationwide criticism.
Connecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy denounced school sentinel programs in his State of the State address.
"Freedom is not a handgun on the hip of every teacher, and security should not mean a guard posted outside every classroom," he said.
Addressing the nation's city leaders at a conference this week, Vice President Joe Biden echoed Malloy's remarks: "The last thing we need to do is arm teachers."
Some question the necessity of school sentinel programs in South Dakota, a state with five gun-related homocides in 2011, which is fewer than in all but two other states, according to Uniform Crime Reports collected by the FBI. South Dakota's lawmakers are solving a problem that doesn’t exist, argued David Penn, a resident of Sioux Falls, S.D., in a letter to the editor in the Argus Leader.
“There is no history in South Dakota of violence in schools,” Penn wrote. “This teaches our children that it's OK to solve our problems with violence -- which is ironic given that this attitude is part of the problem. We need to teach our children healthy conflict management, not create a culture of fear.”
The Argus Leader’s own editorial board agreed with Penn: “We must believe and offer hope that with rational security measures such as locked doors and adequate screening of guests, our children are safe to go to school. As horrifying as a school shooting is, and we hope there is never another, arming a school like a fortress asks everyone to pay a different kind of price that is unnecessary and harmful in its own ways.”
Lawrence Downes, who writes for The New York Times editorial page, argued that it’s easy to imagine amateur shooters spraying bullets wildly, as even professionally trained police officers sometimes miss their target.
“The N.R.A.’s cherished Wild West, good-guy-gunman scenario discounts all the other, more plausible possibilities: of accidental firings, suicides, gun thefts and other lethal mayhem that regularly occurs when guns and people mix.”
Many school leaders in South Dakota have also come out in opposition of the new law.
Darold Rounds, superintendent of the Colman-Egan School District, told the Moody County Enterprise that he feels "having guns in our schools would cause more problems than they would solve," pointing to gun accidents.
Theodore Hamilton, another school superintendent South Dakota, wrote the Argus Leader to say that he doesn’t know any educator who wants guns in the classroom. “How many of these legislators will show up when a gun is misfired in a school, or a student picks up a gun from a teacher and someone is killed?” Hamilton argues that the state legislature should be paying for more school resource officers instead.
In other states, legislatures are considering new requirements to appoint at least one armed school resource officer at every school. According to an NCSL analysis, bills dealing with school resource officers have been introduced or referred to committee in Alabama, Colorado, Mississippi, Tennessee, Texas, Wyoming and Indiana.
In defense of the law
Despite the law's widespread backlash -- which is mostly centered around the accidents that can happen if teachers are armed -- state lawmakers defend their decision because they see it as a way to give localities more autonomy at a time when federal funding and action is unreliable.
In an op-ed published by the Yankton Daily Press and Dakotan, state Sen. Dan Lederman explained his support for the bill as a vote for local control on school safety issues. He argues that most places won't even take advantage of the armed-teachers option. “But for those schools in the middle of rural areas that have parents shifting nervously in their seats at any mention of school violence because any law enforcement response is a minimum of 20 or more minutes away? This bill gives schools that seek an option something they can do to protect themselves until first responders can arrive. They deserve the same solution that children in our cities have.”
Lederman notes that the Obama administration is pushing for a range of federal solutions to gun violence, including more funding for school resource officers. But national government isn’t the answer, he said.
“We can't depend on the federal government to honor its promises to follow through for South Dakota. And we can't depend on the federal government to solve our school safety concerns. We need a South Dakota solution for South Dakota kids. And it needs to be tailored on a district by district basis.”