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Educators worry about permissive gun bill

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Today, if a principal or teacher finds out that someone has a gun in a vehicle parked at school, police are called immediately because it’s a felony for anyone to bring a firearm onto school property.

Local school officials don’t want people bringing firearms anywhere near their buildings because they worry about the potential that someone could be injured or killed in a shooting — whether on purpose or by accident. Police officers, who are trained to handle firearms safely and in how to conduct themselves when facing a gunman, are the only people who should have guns on a school’s campus, local superintendents and administrators said.

State lawmakers are considering a proposal that would change that.

This week, a House committee approved amending a bill so that possessing a firearm on school property no longer would be a felony. The bill also would allow people who legally possess guns to keep them in their vehicles while at school, as long as the vehicles were locked and the guns were kept out of sight.

Students who legally own firearms still wouldn’t be able to bring them to school unless they were a part of a shooting sports team, and guns still wouldn’t be allowed inside school buildings. The bill also would stop schools from creating their own policies stopping people from keeping guns in their vehicles.

If passed, the bill would protect lawful gun owners who can’t always remove their firearms from their vehicles before visiting a school from facing felony charges, State Rep. Jim Lucas, R-Seymour, said.

“The gist of this bill is to decriminalize the lawful carrying of a firearm on school property,” Lucas said.

This is the second time state lawmakers will consider the amendment this legislative session. The amendment originally was added to a bill dealing with government reduction, but it was dropped. Now the amendment is part of a bill that prevents public funds from being used for firearm buyback programs. The bill is expected to be heard before the entire House at the end of this week or early next week. The legislative session ends March 14.

School officials worry that the bill will put students and teachers in danger if passed. The closer a gun is to a school, the greater the likelihood it will discharge and hurt someone, according to Clark-Pleasant director of curriculum Cameron Rains, Franklin Superintendent David Clendening and Bartholomew Consolidated Superintendent John Quick said.

“It opens a lot of doors to potential problems that aren’t there when it’s very clear that you can’t have a firearm on school property,” Rains said.

Because schools want to keep students and their employees safe, the message to students and parents has been a simple one: Keep your guns at home or face the consequences.

Over the past 10 years, schools have been carefully easing up on zero-tolerance policies concerning students who bring knives or toy guns to school, considering a student’s intent and previous behavior before deciding whether to suspend or expel them. But administrators take no chances when a firearm is brought into or near a building. They call the police and will expel any student who brings a gun to school.

“Why would you want to take that chance?” Quick said.

Lucas wants to provide leeway for parents who can legally carry a gun but who have no place to store their firearm while they’re meeting with a teacher or principal or during a sporting event. They shouldn’t face a felony conviction by storing their guns in their trunks or glove compartments, Lucas said.

“I thought it was horrible that the state would subject them to a felony charge for that,” Lucas said.

The biggest concern Rains, Quick and Clendening have with the bill is that a student or others passing by might start breaking into vehicles parked at a school if they think they’ll find a gun inside. There’s also the risk that a gun kept in a vehicle parked at school could be fired accidentally, putting anyone in or near the school in harm’s way, Rains said.

That’s not a concern when guns are kept away from schools altogether, the administrators said.

“We don’t think it’s a very good idea,” Rains said. “I think from our stance, schools and guns don’t mix. So obviously, there would be some worry about having guns on the school premises. Even if they’re hidden or locked up, they’re still there.”

Clendening and Quick also don’t believe having guns nearby would make schools any safer if a shooter were to try to get into the building. Even if a licensed carrier had a firearm in a vehicle, that person doesn’t have the kind of training needed to respond to a shooter that police officers receive, Clendening said.

In the year following the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., schools across the country have made security a top priority. Local school districts, including Center Grove, Franklin and Clark-Pleasant, have added security to their buildings, renovating entrances so that visitors must pass through the main offices and adding buzzers and cameras to their doors. School districts also are looking for funds to hire additional school security officers and partner with area police departments so that officers make regular stops at different buildings.

The additional building renovations and safety officers are what will make schools safer, not more guns near campus, Clendening said.

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