Kansas lawmakers are debating whether guns can make schools more safe.
At school, Kansas students learn what to do in case a shooter attacks. Lock classroom doors. Turn out the lights. Huddle out of view from the window in the door.
In the Statehouse, lawmakers are searching for consensus on better ways to prevent, or cut short, school shootings. Arm teachers? Fortify schools? Train kids about guns?
On Tuesday, the feelings clashed in a committee hearing and on the floor of the Kansas House just days after gun control activists drew crowds to March for Our Lives protests in Kansas City, Wichita, Topeka and across the country.
One bill Kansas lawmakers are mulling hopes to protect schoolchildren by making it more likely their teachers would have a weapon handy. A hearing on the measure drew an overflow audience, including students and parents, to a committee room of both supporters and opponents.
"The more guns you have in a school building it just increases the chance of violence."
“The more guns you have in a school building,” said Shisato Kimura, member of a new student group at Lawrence High School advocating gun reform, “it just increases the chance of violence.”
Kansas has allowed teachers to carry guns in schools since 2013. But when lawmakers approved that, the state’s main school insurer saw a bad business prospect and promptly notified districts it wouldn’t cover that. Districts with armed teachers, EMC announced, wouldn’t have their insurance policies renewed.
In the wake of the Parkland, Florida, shooting that killed 17 students and school employees last month, Kansas lawmakers are revisiting the topic with a bill that would prevent insurers from taking that stance. The measure does allow them to deny coverage if they show the liability risks would be unreasonable.
The legislation would also make school districts more vulnerable to lawsuits after a school shooting — if it turns out they didn’t allow staff to arm themselves. In court, those districts would face a presumption of negligence.
Sen. Ty Masterson told them would-be shooters are likely to assume there aren’t armed employees in Kansas schools, putting them at greater risk. Insurance companies, he said, should recognize when schools work to fix that.
“You can contend that rates should be lower in the schools that protect their children more appropriately,” the Andover Republican said. “Mentally deranged shooters are looking for soft targets.”
Jason Watkins, a lobbyist for the Kansas State Rifle Association, called the bill “common sense.” His group supports provisions in the bill that would prevent the public from knowing which teachers carry guns.
“A trained, certified and armed teacher will save lives,” he said, “in those precious minutes before law enforcement arrives.”
Kansas’ main teachers union and its school board association testified against the bill.
The Parkland shooting took just six minutes, said Mark Desetti, of the Kansas National Education Association. It’s ridiculous to think a teacher can get his or her students into safe positions, retrieve a handgun from a secure location, make sure it’s loaded, and successfully chase down a heavily armed killer in that time.
“And I’m going to face a guy with an AR-15, rapid firing, perhaps with a bump stock and a very large capacity magazine?” he said. “And I’m going to take that person down? No.”
Later, on the House floor, Democratic Rep. Brett Parker pushed an amendment to another bill in hopes of revoking the ability of teachers carry concealed weapons in school.
Parker, a teacher, said adding guns to classrooms distracts from learning and could make it harder to attract teachers to Kansas.
“We are having a hard enough time filling our teacher shortages,” Parker said.
His effort failed after other lawmakers said local school districts should have the option of choosing to arm teachers.
“Making a target hardened is the best deterrent to armed confrontation,” said Republican Rep. Eric Smith, a sheriff’s deputy. “Advertising a place to be unarmed is the worst thing you can do to deter the tragedies we are seeing.”
The House advanced a bill calling for state guidelines for safer schools, but some lawmakers said it lacks enough money for meaningful security upgrades. A $5 million state grant would help pay for building updates and plans to deal with emergencies such as shootings.
Democratic Representative Cindy Neighbor said she likes the planning requirements, but she said the Shawnee Mission School District recently went through a security upgrade and spent significantly more than the $5 million being offered in the bill. She said lawmakers could be looking for more money in the future to help pay for upgrades.
“This is a very expensive endeavor,” Neighbor said.
The bill also sets guidelines for optional gun safety training that schools can offer to students. The chamber rejected efforts to remove references to an NRA training program named in the bill.
Celia Llopis-Jepsen is a reporter for the Kansas News Service, a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio covering health, education and politics. You can reach her on Twitter @Celia_LJ. Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished at no cost with proper attribution and a link back to the original post.
Stephen Koranda is Statehouse reporter for Kansas Public Radio, a partner in the Kansas News Service. Follow him on Twitter @kprkoranda. Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished at no cost with proper attribution and a link back to the original post.