Betsy Sherman Walker: Committee Favors Gun Ban in Schools

Whether seen as a thorn in the nation’s side, a constitutional guarantee, or a harbinger of tragedy, the existence of guns has taken a place in our lives, and no community is exempt.

At the March 22 Middletown School Committee meeting, Nan Heroux, secretary of the Rhode Island Coalition Against Gun Violence, presented the provisions of H-7243, a House bill recently endorsed by the Rhode Island School Principals Association and the Rhode Island Association of School Committees, to keep guns out of schools.

At the April 12 meeting of the Newport School Committee, the assembled members did more than discuss the various points and targets of the bill when they voted by a margin of 4-3 to approve the Resolution on Gun Free Schools, “to disallow non-law enforcement [persons] to carry concealed firearms onto school grounds.”

The debate beforehand, which included input from Heroux, a former member of the Middletown School Committee, had both sides agreeing on the end result – safety on school campuses – but not on what steps to take to get there.

“Many people don’t even realize,” she explained, “that Rhode Island is one of two states – Utah is the other – that unrestrictedly allows guns on school grounds.” Of the other 48, she said, “39 have outlawed them. The other nine have various restrictions.”

The sticking point came down to one idea: the unpredictability of concealment.

School Committee Chair Jo Eva Gaines explained that current state law allows individuals with a Conceal Carry Permit, or CCP, to walk onto school grounds carrying a concealed weapon, and that the “vast majority” of states have banned concealed weapons on school grounds. Those in favor of the bill agreed with Gaines, who saw too much of a risk in allowing anyone, no matter how qualified, to walk onto a campus carrying a concealed weapon.

David Carlin was one of the three committee dissenters. “With respect to both sides of the issue,” he said, “I think it is an error to prohibit concealed carry permit holders.” The issue, he said, is that CCP holders do not fit the profile of the school shooter. In his research, he said he “could find no example of CCP-involved school shootings.” He cited last October’s campus shootings in Oregon. “The college had established itself as a ‘gun-free zone,’” he said. “We might be sending a signal to folks who have very bad intents: That this school district is, effectively, a place where you can come and commit violence without the likelihood of anyone being able to stop it.”

David Hanos agreed with Carlin. “I feel similar sentiments,” he said. “We need to be safe, yes, but I feel it is the individual and not the weapon.”

“We are not about taking guns away,” said Heroux. “We just don’t feel that schools are the place for people who carry guns.” The CCP regulations, she continued, were implemented a quarter century ago, “without consideration for school shootings.”

Later she added, “We don’t allow concealed weapons in airports, in our courthouses, or the Statehouse. Why would we allow them in our schools?”

Local resident David Eikeland had asked ahead of time to bring his own perspective into the room. “Your job is to run the Newport schools, not regulate gun laws,” he told the committee, adding that “this is not a good idea.” The issue, he said, is up to the General Assembly and he pointed out that a similar bill was considered last year and that “they knew it was not a good bill.” It gets complicated, Eikeland added. “I don’t think the sponsors fully understand the bill.”

Before asking for the final vote Gaines said, “I just think the proliferation of guns and the chance that a child might get hold of a gun and harm another child, harm an adult, or harm themselves, is just not a risk we should take.”

Committee members Carlin, Hanos, and Robert Leary joined together in a minority in opposition to the vote that sent a message to Smith Hill legislators in support of the House bill. 

In other school matters…

The School Committee also discussed the possibility of working with the city to install cameras inside and outside various school buildings. School Supt. Colleen Jermain told the committee that the “funding was in place” to purchase the cameras, but the logistics and timing have not been worked out yet. “We don’t have plans on where [to put them yet]. We have discussions with the city over possible locations,” said Jermain. “I will bring that back to you. Right now we are in discussions, in planning.” Gaines said the schools should also consider installing motion lights next to the cameras. “Cameras won’t do much at night if there is no light,” she said. “You can’t see people in the dark.” After a question by Leary, Jermain confirmed that while grant money is available to purchase the cameras, other monies would be needed for maintenance, upkeep and repair. “That would have to be studied going forward,” said Jermain.

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