Local legislators divided on arming teachers, united on school security measures

Local legislators divided on arming teachers, united on school security measures

When a disgruntled former student opened fire at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., on Feb. 14, killing 17, the massacre spurred a predictable hue and cry from politicians across the nation about the pros and cons of gun control.

Considering the gridlock at the U.S. Capitol, there seems little hope of meaningful movement on any legislation to tighten gun laws. But the debate on what to do about the country’s mass-shootings crisis has been spirited in state legislatures, where there’s a much more realistic chance of passage of measures to curb the availability of firearms.

In Rhode Island, Gov. Gina Raimondo signed an executive order that established a statewide “red flag” policy that gave police the green light to “take all available legal steps” to remove guns from those they deem a risk. A proposed red-flag bill currently winding its way through the state legislature would give courts the power to seize firearms from those considered dangerous by a judge through a process that includes a petition and a hearing.

Unlike many states where an individual can avoid going through a background check if they buy a firearm from a private individual rather than a local gun store, Rhode Island requires that no matter whether you are buying a handgun from the gun store or some guy on Craigslist, the purchaser must submit the application form for a background check and wait the seven days.

Rhode Island prohibits the ownership of guns by those who have been convicted of violent crimes, are fugitives from justice, are illegal aliens, under guardianship for being mentally incompetent or are undergoing treatment for drug or alcohol abuse. The state also prohibits any person from selling a handgun to anyone under age 21. 

Here’s what our local legislators think about the need for gun control laws, red-flag bills and other issues raised by the Parkland shooting:

R.I. Sen. Dennis Algiere

State Sen Dennis Algiere, R-Westerly, said he supports the red-flag bill introduced by the General Assembly but believes the measure requires adjustments before moving ahead for a final vote.

“The General Assembly is working on a number of initiatives to ensure the safety of our students in their schools. I support Senate bill 2018-S 2606, which is commonly known as the “red-flag” law. While I believe the bill needs tweaking, it would allow courts to disarm dangerous people who have been giving warning signs that they might commit acts of violence,” Algiere said. “In addition, I am working closely with my colleagues on legislation to make our schools safer. A number of hearings will be held in the coming weeks to determine the best path forward and to find common-sense ways to both keep guns out of the hands of those who might do harm and to establish concrete procedures to make schools safer.”

Algiere, the Senate minority leader, said he opposes President Donald Trump’s push to arm teachers but promised to work on making the state’s schools as safe as possible.

“While I think our schools are generally safe, there is always room for improvement,” he said.

While Algiere received a 93 percent score from the National Rifle Association’s Political Victory Fund, he assigned little significance to the rating.

“I receive ratings from various organizations. I generally do not pay attention to ratings,” he said.

R.I. Rep. Sam Azzinaro

State Rep. Sam Azzinaro, D-Westerly, said the widespread availability of AR-15s is unnecessary.

“The AR-15 is a military rifle. I don’t see any need for anyone to have one unless you’re in the military. I have no idea or see no reason why anyone needs that particular weapon or ones that are similar,” Azzinaro said.

A proposed “red-flag” bill is likely to be approved in the current legislative session, Azzinaro predicted. While he would like to see some modifications to the bill, Azzinaro said parts of it have merit. He also called for increasing the mandatory age from 18 to 21 to buy a long gun, including assault rifles, in the state.

Azzinaro expressed concerns about President Donald Trump’s call to arm teachers. Instead, Azzinaro said a more uniform approach to school safety and security should be taken. Automatically locking doors and an adequate number of security cameras are needed at all schools, he said.

“No one should be able to just walk into a school with or without a weapon,” he said.

While new laws might help, Azzinaro said Rhode Island has a large number of gun laws as compared to other states.

“They need to be enforced like any other violation,” Azzinaro said.

Azzinaro has a state-issued permit to carry a weapon and is a member of the National Rifle Association. He is ranked 93 percent by the NRA but said he does not pay attention to the organization’s ratings and is not aware of having received any campaign contributions from it.

The problem, Azzinaro said, involves more than just guns and gun laws.

“We need to pay attention. When something seems wrong with a next-door neighbor we have to report it and police have to investigate it,” he said.

R.I. Rep. Blake Filippi

Some local legislators say they’d support allowing teachers to carry firearms to be used to protect students, should there be a shooting incident in a school here. That group includes state Rep. Blake Filippi, R-Block Island.

“I have no problem with having highly properly-trained teachers being able to carry a firearm in a school,” Filippi said. Filippi’s district includes parts of Charlestown, Westerly and South Kingstown.

Filippi would want a separate state police program to train such individuals. He also supports proposed legislation that would put a police officer in most, if not all, of the state’s schools.

Still, Filippi said the state should be cautious about moving too far in reaction to the Parkland school shooting.

“We don’t want to militarize our schools. There’s a fine balance,” Filippi, the House Minority Whip, said.

“I don’t think (gun control) will provide the immediate protection kids need,” he said. “These Second Amendment ‘macro issues’ can be dealt with separately. What can we do immediately?”

R.I. Rep. Justin Price

Filippi is not alone. Republican Rep. Justin Price, of Richmond, said he’d be in favor of giving teachers the ability to use firearms if there was a shooting situation.

Price said it should be voluntary. But, “to have armed people at the situation while it’s happening would help.”

Price also said local police departments are “on top of things,” and believes they’d handle a school-shooting scenario “much differently” than the police in Parkland, where officers were criticized for staying outside the high school instead of rushing into the building to try to stop the shooter.

But there would be an advantage to having someone armed at a school if a shooting starts and seconds count, Price said.

“It takes a few minutes for police to get there, and these events can be over in a few minutes,” he said.

Price also noted that schools already have several layers of protection, such as door buzzers, that prevent unfettered access.

He also questions attempts at the State House to pass new gun-control measures. Hearings on the issue dominated the General Assembly this week.

“Ultimately, we want to protect our children,” Price said. “And all the laws currently on the books need to be fully enforced before we start making any new laws.”

R.I. Sen. Elaine Morgan

Sen. Elaine Morgan, R-Hopkinton, Richmond, Exeter, and West Greenwich, said her foremost concern was school security, and she did not address the issue of arming teachers.

“The tragedy in Florida was a terribly horrific act,” she said. “My sincerest sympathies go out to all that were involved. It was an inexcusable breakdown of security. A number of people raised concerns to a variety of agencies through the years. We need to work to establish protocols to prevent tragedies like this.

“Most importantly,” Morgan continued, “we need to make our schools secure for our children. There are two major school systems in my district. Chariho and Exeter-West Greenwich both do an excellent job at keeping our children safe. As my 15-year-old said to me yesterday, if someone is intent on attacking a school, they will obtain a weapon one way or another. It’s about security at the schools.”

R.I. Rep. Brian Patrick Kennedy

Rep. Brian Patrick Kennedy, D-Hopkinton and Westerly, described Rhode Island as having some of the most stringent gun laws in the country. Restrictions include a seven-day waiting period before the final purchase of a gun and a minimum age of 21 for all buyers.

“After an individual has identified a gun that they would like to purchase, they must fill out a Purchase of a Pistol or Revolver Application Form,” he said. “This is basically a background-check form that is sent to the Attorney General, along with the state police superintendent or local chief of police, so they can make sure that the individual is allowed to buy a gun.  Once the application is submitted, the applicant will have to wait at least seven days before being allowed to pick up the gun from the gun store.”

On the subject of arming teachers, Kennedy said he is opposed to the proposal.

“Teachers are there to teach and guns don't belong in a classroom,” he said. “The potential  financial liability to a school district for a discharged gun would be massive. I doubt that many current teachers would want to be placed in the position of having to arm themselves due to their constant proximity to students throughout the day.

“We already know that sheriff's deputies failed to respond to the danger within the school on Feb. 14th, and I don't think that a teacher would want to be placed in the position of having to make an instantaneous life or death decision. Teachers were trained to educate and didn't sign up to be weaponized.”

Conn. Sen. Heather Somers

“No parent should ever have to question whether their child will be safe when they drop them off or put them on a bus for school," Connecticut state Sen. Heather Somers, R-Groton, said.

After the recent tragedy in Florida, she has begun arranging a series of school-safety forums across the 18th District that will bring together law enforcement veterans, school-safety experts, education professionals and mental-health experts “for direct and thought-provoking conversations on what measures we can take to strengthen the safety and security of our schools.”

"As a mother of three, including a second-grader attending Groton public schools, I believe we need to leave partisan politics at the door and pursue concrete actions where there is already broad consensus on this issue,” Somers said.

"I support commonsense measures, and Connecticut already has some of the most restrictive gun-control laws in the nation.”

More work needs to be done to fix “our broken mental-health system,” said Somers, who is co-chairwoman of the state's Public Health Committee.

“I believe it is critical to examine from top to bottom how the entire ecosystem of state agencies, nonprofits, law enforcement professionals and educators, whom we rely on to identify, flag and treat mental-health issues, are trained and empowered to act,” she said.

“I've led the fight to expose abuse and mistreatment of patients at the state mental health hospital at Whiting to hold those responsible accountable and to implement reforms," Somers said. "We need a lot more of this kind of tough accountability for our state agencies tasked with dealing with mental-health issues."

Conn. Rep. Diana Urban

State Rep. Diana Urban, a Democrat representing Stonington and North Stonington, commended the high school students in Parkland for speaking up and said their vote in the coming elections could change the status quo.

“I think they can move this country, and I hope that as they hit 18 they register to vote, because that voting 18-25 block can win elections,” she said by phone last Thursday. “I hope they realize they can move the dial here.”

Urban emphasized the connection between animal cruelty and school shootings and reiterated the importance of Desmond’s Law, which allows judges to appoint advocates for animal victims in criminal cruelty. Urban led the passage of the Connecticut law in 2016, which was named for a dog that was severely abused by its owner, who was able to avoid jail time and have the crime expunged from his record.

Knowing about the perpetrators’ histories of abusing animals in the mass shootings in Florida, Texas, Columbine and Pennsylvania might have helped prevent the tragedies, she said.

“My first thing is prevention. If we got to every one of those students when they were mutilating animals and before the anger rose to such a level that they felt they had to go and shoot up their classmates, we [might have a chance to] give them the help they need.”

Urban said she wanted to create a safe way for kids to tell adults when other kids were mutilating animals or talking about violence.

“We need to step up and give them a safe place so they don’t have to worry that they’re not cool or not fitting in by saying there’s an issue with a particular student,” she said.

Urban said she has many gun owners in her district and is a “very big proponent of the Second Amendment” but does not believe the framers of the Constitution would have supported citizens’ ownership of automatic weapons as the law stands now.

She said she could support ownership of automatic weapons under some type of limited-use clause, such as keeping them at gun clubs.

She also said arming teachers was unrealistic and potentially dangerous, especially against a shooter with an automatic weapon. She said the teacher could be mistaken for the shooter and children could get caught in the crossfire.

Being with parents at Sandy Hook Elementary School in the aftermath of the shootings was unforgettable, she said, and it was time for the legislature in Washington to listen.  

“When I think of [the parents] going to Washington and talking about their six-year-olds and yet nobody listened, nobody thought that they needed to listen,” she said. “For this situation in Florida, I give the bravest kudos to those teenagers, because they’re not six years old and they don’t have their parents talking for them; they are taking this on themselves and their voice is amazing and it is my fervent hope that they don’t get discouraged.”


Latest Videos