Rabin bill proposes additional firepower in N.C. schools

Apr. 24, 2013 @ 05:00 AM

North Carolina schools may see not only officers, but other employees or even volunteers, carrying weapons on campus by early 2014— but not all local school officials are on board.

Senate Bill 59, proposed by Sen. Ronald Rabin, a Republican who represents Lee and Harnett counties in the N.C. General Assembly, would allow local public, private and charter schools’ governing boards to individually decide if they want to approve the changes in their respective districts — which would allow guards to openly carry guns or to have them concealed, in addition to loosening the requirements to carry a gun on campus.The bill is in committee, but Rabin said he’s fighting hard for it to be approved for a vote on the Senate floor as soon as possible. If it does become law, it would take effect Dec. 1, 2013.

“I told [committee members] quite frankly that it’s a matter of urgency that we get something,” Rabin said in an interview earlier this month, adding that there are several bills related to firearms, including his, that legislators could combine before sending them to the Senate for a vote.

However, Lee County Board of Education Chairman Lynn Smith said he wasn’t entirely comfortable with having full-time, armed guards in elementary schools. The district now has armed and uniformed school resource officers at every high school and middle school, and the middle school officers also occasionally visit the elementary schools. While his bill encourages school districts to place guards in all three levels of schools, Rabin said — in the spirit of the small government platform he campaigned on — that he intentionally wrote the bill so local schools would have a choice, not a mandate, if the bill becomes law.

One thing that wouldn’t be up to the individual districts, however, is the level of training a potential guard must have. The bill states: “... all applicants, other than certified law enforcement officers, must successfully complete an approved firearms safety and training course developed by the North Carolina Sheriffs’ Education and Training Standards Commission.”

Rabin, a retired Army colonel who led special forces operations during the Vietnam War, said training is one mandate he was more than happy to levy.

“Based on my own experience with the chaos that can come from small arms … training should be strict, and standard, across the state,” he said.

Smith said in an email earlier this month that one of his main trepidations regarding this bill would be if it were combined with House Bill 491, proposed by local Rep. Mike Stone, which aims to transfer control of student resource officers in Lee County away from the schools and into the hands of the Lee County Sheriff’s Office. Smith said he would prefer to have anyone with a gun on campus answering to the principals of schools they patrol. Regarding Rabin’s bill, he left the door open for a potential compromise.

Referring to plainclothes school resource officers, Smith said Monday, “I could see doing that [in the elementary schools], but ‘armed guards’ leaves me feeling a little cold. I mean, are we talking shotguns, rifles, handguns, what?”

Smith also noted the purchase earlier this year of high-tech security systems, including electronic locks and surveillance cameras, as well as fencing installed around certain locations.

“That was something that really needed to be done, and I’m satisfied with that and how it turned out,” Smith said of the various security upgrades that, like Rabin’s bill, were initiated with the Newtown, Conn., elementary school massacre in mind.

In Chatham County, student resource officers are armed and under the control of the sheriff’s office, not the school district. School board Chairman David Hamm said he has never had problems with that setup, either in his time on the board or when he was principal at Pittsboro Elementary School. However, he said, the true benefit of a resource officer is to provide a presence of authority that hopefully negates the need to fire a gun at all. In fact, he said, he’s not aware of a resource officer in Chatham County having done so.

“Lots of times, people don’t understand the [school resource officers’] duties, which is probably more liaison and counselor than heavy force,” he said. “... It starts in the elementary grades, with the kids getting used to seeing [the officers] and learning that they’re there for you, not against you.”

Hamm added that the school board hadn’t been following the progress of Rabin’s bill and probably wouldn’t make any of the changes it contains if it were to become law.

Chatham County Superintendent Robert Logan said he was also fine with the state of security in his schools.

“If putting armed guards in schools means that we have well-trained individuals with law enforcement backgrounds, I support that,” Logan said, adding that he doesn’t like Rabin’s proposal to allow teachers, principals, bus drivers, cafeteria workers or others to carry weapons as long as a school board approves.

“I’ve been trained in firearms, and I would not want to have the responsibility of having a firearm on a school campus,” he said. He also related a story from a friend who’s a principal in South Carolina, where one student came to campus with a gun, intending to wreak havoc. The student reportedly went immediately to the student resource officer and shot at the officer, although he missed and the officer disarmed him. The student later testified he wanted to kill the school’s armed guard first so no one could stop his rampage. Logan said he wouldn’t want to put teachers or other employees in a similarly targeted position by arming them.

Furthermore, he noted that even professional law enforcement officers sometimes demonstrate bad judgment in using weapons. Saying that volunteers or school staff might be even more susceptible to a lapse in judgment or temper, Logan said he couldn’t support arming anyone but a professional. He also suggested that a Taser might be a better solution than a gun.

“I don’t think that the firearm problem in America is solved by arming everybody,” he said. “I mean, it would be like the Wild, Wild West.”