Va. bill would order schools to arm teachers

December 19, 2012

Del. Robert G. Marshall is proposing a bill that would require some teachers or other school staff to carry concealed weapons in schools.

Marshall (R-Prince William) requested that the bill be drafted in response to the mass shooting last week at a Connecticut elementary school.

Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) said this week that there should be a discussion about whether school staff should be allowed to carry concealed weapons to protect children against intruders.

Marshall’s proposal goes beyond the governor’s comments, which were made in the course of a radio interview Tuesday. Marshall would not only allow staff with concealed handgun permits to carry them in schools, but require school districts to designate some staff members to do so. Those employees would have to be certified in gun safety and competence, Marshall said.

Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling (R) said through a staff member Wednesday that he does not favor requiring school employees to be armed.

“There are probably many things we could do to make our schools safer, including having more trained law enforcement personnel in our schools as resource officers, but the Lieutenant Governor does not believe that we should require other school personnel to be armed,” Ibbie Hedrick, deputy chief of staff for Bolling, said via e-mail.

Marshall’s idea had some takers, however.

“I would be very supportive of the idea that properly trained teachers could carry concealed firearms,” said Sen. Richard H. Black (R-Loudoun). “There's no way you’d have 20 innocent children gunned down if you had teachers who could help to defend themselves.”

Philip Van Cleave, who heads the Virginia Citizens Defense League, said he would like to see the state eliminate the gun-free zones surrounding schools. As an interim step, he would support arming teachers and other staff.

“We’d prefer to just see that [gun-free zone] go away, not just [for] teachers but even parents or whoever,” he said. “They’re carrying everywhere else. Why do we not trust them on school grounds? Gun-free zones don’t work, and telling people with permits they can’t carry on school property — the people you don’t want carrying on school property don’t have permits.”

The state lawyer tasked with drafting Marshall’s bill initially questioned whether the General Assembly had the authority to mandate that school boards arm staff, as opposed to simply allowing them to do so, according to a letter from the lawyer provided by Marshall.

“The Constitution of Virginia is fairly unclear on the role of the school boards vis-à-vis the General Assembly with regard to the schools,” wrote Wenzel J. Cummings, staff attorney for the Virginia Division of Legislative Services. Under the Constitution, school boards have “primary responsibility and authority for effectuating the educational policy,” but their authority is “subject to the ultimate authority of the General Assembly,” Cummings wrote.

Cummings, in consultation with other lawyers, ultimately concluded that the bill could be proposed as a mandate after turning up a recent example of the General Assembly’s ordering schools to do something. Last session, it passed a bill requiring that school boards adopt policies for stocking and administering epinephrine, to be administered to students in cases of severe allergic reaction.

“Given that this is a mandate placed on the school board with regard to the training of its personnel, it seems to be within the realm of what your bill request would seek to accomplish requiring the training of personnel who would carry a firearm,” Cummings wrote. “In that vein, if you would prefer a ‘shall’ versus a ‘may,’ we think you could probably go forward with a ‘shall’ bill.”

Carrying a concealed weapon with a permit is legal in the state, but not in schools.

During the “Ask the Governor” radio show on WTOP on Tuesday, McDonnell did not actually propose arming teachers and principals. His only directives since Friday’s shootings was to review school safety, create a task force on the subject and create a new position within the Department of Criminal Justice Services: the school and campus safety coordinator.

But when asked whether teachers and principals should be armed inside schools, McDonnell said the idea was worthy of discussion.

“I know there’s been a knee-jerk reaction against that,” McDonnell said. “I think there should at least be a discussion of that. If people were armed, not just a police officer but other school officials who were trained and chose to have a weapon, certainly there would have been an opportunity to stop aggressors coming into the schools . . .

“Right now we have a complete ban [at schools], and I’ve been supportive of that,” McDonnell continued. “But I think that’s a discussion that is probably timely. Especially, you look at the facts . . . in Connecticut, where this person went into the principal’s office and actually killed the principal, who was lunging . . . at the perpetrator heroically to try to stop him. If a person like that was armed and trained, could they have stopped the carnage in the classroom? Perhaps.”

McDonnell’s comments drew swift criticism from some Democrats.

“And when that fails to stop this, what’s next? Arm the students?” said Senate Minority Leader Richard L. Saslaw (D-Fairfax). “If teachers wanted to carry guns in order to do their day job, they would have become policemen.”

Sen. A. Donald McEachin (D-Henrico), Democratic caucus chair, said in a statement: “I am appalled. There are more guns in America than people, and yet we have one of the highest rates of gun violence in the world. The Governor should know better than to suggest that arming citizens will solve anything. Maybe the Governor should focus on solutions that could actually have an impact, like banning the high-capacity magazines used to inflict horrific violence upon countless American cities, from Aurora to Newton.”

Laura Vozzella covers Virginia politics for The Washington Post.
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