LITTLE ROCK — Proposals that would allow more people to carry guns legally, as well as improve security at public schools are expected to receive considerable debate in the upcoming legislative session.
The president of the Arkansas Police Chiefs Association said he opposes any laws that would expand the state’s current gun laws and he would like to see every school district in the state have a school resource office, or armed police officer, on duty during the school day.
The Dec. 14 tragedy in Newtown, Conn., where a gunman with automatic weapons forced his way into an elementary school and killed 20 children and six adults before killing himself, had Arkansas lawmakers thinking last week about the tragedy and how something like that that could be avoided here.
Some talked of more school resource officers, while others suggested changing the state’s gun laws.
The “tragic event will cause people to begin to look at security in all public schools. I think that is going to sweep the nation, I don’t think there is any doubt about that,” said Rep. Uvalde Lindsey, D-Fayetteville, who will be sworn in as a state senator in January.
“You see in the blogs, you see it on Facebook and in comments … from we need to arm every classroom to we need to put up more security,” Lindsey said. “I don’t know, I think it’s early. I think someone will obviously bring it up. I think people on the street are concerned. They’re still in some degree of shock about what we do, how do we act or react.”
While lawmakers continue to struggle with how to address safety concerns in public schools and in communities across the state, some legislators are already working on their ideas.
Rep. Charlie Collins, R-Fayetteville, said last week he plans to file a bill that would amend the state’s concealed-carry law to allow college and university employees who are licensed to carry concealed handguns to do so on the campus where they are employed.
The law would apply to public and private colleges and universities, unless a private institution has a policy against concealed weapons on campus.
“The issue we’ve got in Arkansas and across the country is there are certain places where crazies and killers know that they will be able to wreak havoc and not be deterred,” Collins said. “I believe that by allowing full-time employees and faculty on college campuses, who also have a concealed carry permit … we will create two positive affects to save lives.”
He said it would be a deterrent because “some of the crazies and killers … will say, ‘hey wait a minute, somebody on this campus might pull out a gun and shoot me.’”
It also would have a “protective effect” because a professor could tell students he is carrying a gun and protect them, he said.
Collins filed a similar measure in the 2011 session but it failed to get out of the House Education Committee.
Rep. Denny Altes, R-Fort Smith, said last week he plans to file a bill that would allow residents in Arkansas with a license and proper training to openly carry a gun. The measure is identical to one that became law this year in Oklahoma.
“Out in Montana, Arizona and there are a lot of states out west, they just don’t have as much crime because everybody carries, everybody sees it and everybody knows,” Altes said, adding that he believes schools and churches are vulnerable because they are places where weapons are not allowed.
“If they’d issue a gun to the principals and administrators of schools, I don’t think we’d have any problems because right now everybody knows that nobody in a school has a gun,” he said.
Last week, Rep. Justin Harris, R-West Fork, pre-filed a bill for the 2013 legislative session that would extend the concealed weapon handgun exemption to former law enforcement officers.
Sen. Johnny Key, R-Mountain Home, who will chair the Senate Education Committee in the 2013 session, said he expects school safety to be discussed by lawmakers and resources officers will likely be one of the topics.
“I would be imagine that a tragedy like this will force us to look at that type of issue,” Key said. “We have not addressed it from a statewide level, but I think districts have looked at it individually.
“I think in some respect it’s not even as much about school resource officers as it is about access to school facilities,” he said. “It’s about if something does happen. If there is some unauthorized access and then something bad happens what then? Is there a plan in place?
“It’s a shame that we’ve always had fire drills and tornado drills and in recent years we’ve added earthquake drills in some districts,” he said. “What other types of emergency-type scenarios are we going to have to start drilling?”
Larance Johnson, a coordinator of Arkansas Safe Schools Program, which is affiliated with the University of Arkansas’ Criminal Justice Institute, said about 50 percent of Arkansas school districts have school resource officers.
The resources officers are sworn police officers who are often paid by both the school district and local police department to work within the district or school.
The Little Rock, North Little Rock and the Pulaski County Special school districts all employ resources officers. The Pulaski County School District and Little Rock School District also hire extra security, she said.
“It costs money,” Johnson said. “I would say if they could afford it most schools would want it.”
Lake Village Police Chief Percy Wilburn, who is president of the Arkansas Association of Chiefs of Police, said the Lake Side School District in Lake Village has a resource officer who is paid by the school district and city.
Wilburn said the association opposed Collins’ bill two years ago and he expects it will oppose it again. The association’s next meeting is at the end of January.
“I’m also strongly opposed to the open carry law,” he said. “We’re going back to the John Wayne days where everyone carries a gun. I definitely don’t think everybody out there should carry a gun.”
Wilburn also said he supports a federal ban on assault weapons.
“My feeling is no one should have assault weapons unless they are law enforcement or the military,” he said. “There is no reason for a deer hunter to have an assault weapon with a 30-round clip. I just don’t see that.”