Hearing on guns in schools hints at likely 2024 legislative targets
LINCOLN — The Nebraska Legislature appears poised next year to consider again who should be allowed to carry a gun on school property, beyond on-duty law enforcement officers.
State Sen. Tom Brewer, a gun rights advocate, invited Education Committee testimony Friday from rural and private school officials, firearms experts and security contractors.
The list of testifiers included no teachers or teachers unions and no leaders or school board members from public schools in Nebraska’s largest cities.
Brewer, who represents north-central Nebraska, said he had not yet settled on language for his next gun bill after eliminating training requirements this year for carrying concealed handguns.
“We have not written a bill,” he said.
However, the people he invited to testify and his opening and closing statements about the interim study he sought with Legislative Resolution 220 hinted at some likely targets.
- Allowing certified law enforcement officers to carry service weapons on school property and at school events when officers are off-duty. Nebraska law allows them to carry weapons only while on duty or while contracted by the school in a security role.
- Giving elected local school boards the authority to allow armed teachers and staff at schools. Current state law prohibits armed staff other than school resource officers.
- Requiring updated digital mapping of school buildings compatible with the mapping software and equipment used by every local and state law enforcement agency.
- Reviving a push for regional specialists to provide tailored support and increased safety training for K-12 schools.
Guns in schools?
Much of Brewer’s push to re-examine state laws governing guns in K-12 schools evoked 2019’s Legislative Bill 343 by State Sen. Steve Halloran of Hastings, which failed to pass.
That bill would have let trained school staff carry concealed handguns. Supporters of LB 343 focused on the need to respond rapidly to school violence to save lives.
Brewer said he introduced the interim study resolution because he thinks Nebraska law prevents schools from protecting students as well as they otherwise could.
He and others discussed how far many rural schools are from the nearest law enforcement and how long they would wait in an emergency. Those schools need the ability to help themselves, he said.
“We don’t have enough money to put school resource officers in every school,” Brewer said. “For those schools … that don’t have that advantage, I think we owe it to them to do what we can.”
State Sen. Danielle Conrad of Lincoln asked one testifier if he knew of research about the risks of having armed staff in schools.
Opponents show up anyway
Friday’s hearing allowed only invited testimony. But people opposing more guns in schools showed up anyway, many wearing the red T-shirts of Moms Demand Action.
Katie Townley of Moms Demand Action Nebraska said she was disappointed in the one-sided hearing. She said lawmakers heard only from people who want more firearms in schools.
She said the process overlooked what other people want. She noted that the committee received online comments from four supporters of LR 220 and 47 opponents.
Townley said she would rather see the Legislature spend more time talking about what it can do to encourage safer storage of weapons at home instead of getting more guns in schools.
“It’s quite obvious that in our country, adding more firearms everywhere and in every place is not making us safer,” she said. “These are just steps that make certain people feel better.”
Arming staff could be local decision
A Panhandle school board member testifying in support of getting the authority to arm staff said few of his teachers would probably want to bring guns to school.
But some might, said Art Frerichs, a Morrill Public Schools board member with law enforcement experience. He said his 300-student district can’t afford resource officers.
Frerichs said he worries more about securing sporting events and out-of-school gatherings than he does about securing his school buildings, which are already locked and funnel visitors.
State Sen. Joni Albrecht of Thurston asked him if his district hires law enforcement help for sports events. He said the help he gets at those events is just local law enforcement staffing some games on their own.
Because of that, Frerichs said, it “would be very beneficial for law enforcement when they’re off duty to carry if they want to.” Many have children in school and attend events as parents, he said.
Deterrent or not?
Zach Kassebaum, the superintendent of Lincoln Christian, and James Donahue, security director of the Jewish Federation of Omaha, discussed the potential value of arming staff.
Kassebaum said people considering schools a soft target might reconsider if they didn’t know whether someone at the school might be armed. Donahue said people want to be proactive.
Kassebaum said urban schools also worry about how many lives might be lost before first responders arrive during an emergency.
“It’s not just out in the west,” he said. “It could be 20 minutes until someone could respond.”
Said Donahue: “The presence of trained, armed people is an effective deterrent.”
Critics, including Townley, questioned the value of that deterrent vs. the risk of an accident harming a child.
The committee also heard from two national contractors — one who trains armed school staff and another that ensures schools are mapped in ways law enforcement can use.