WASHINGTON — A task force funded by the National Rifle Association announced Tuesday that a safe school is one with at least one armed staff member in the building. A press conference led by task force leader and former Republican Rep. Asa Hutchinson showed the NRA is sticking to its guns three months after Newtown.
But it's also changing its tune just a little after public backlash over its more-guns-equal-safer-schools concept and public school leaders rejecting their plan to train armed volunteers to patrol school hallways. The group has dropped its proposal to have armed posses in schools, and is now calling for armed and trained teachers, Hutchinson said Tuesday.
A week after the Sandy Hook Shootings, Wayne LaPierre, the NRA's hard-charging vice president, spoke to reporters about "an extraordinary corps of patriotic, trained, qualified citizens" ready to be armed and deployed into schools to protect against the next school shooting.
Hutchinson, put in charge of the school safety initiative by NRA leaders, backed up the idea at the same press conference.
"In my home state of Arkansas, my son was a volunteer with a local group called 'Watchdog Dads,' who volunteer their time at schools to patrol playgrounds and provide a measure of added security," he said at the NRA's Dec. 21 press conference. "Whether they're retired police, retired military or rescue personnel, I think there are people in every community in this country who would be happy to serve, if only someone asked them and gave them the training and certification to do so."
That led to outrage from some teachers' groups and increased media scrutiny, prompting some negative headlines.
On Tuesday, Hutchinson and his task force had changed its tune. The task force's recommendations call for strengthened doors and windows at schools, better security procedures like badging employees, and more guns on school grounds. But this time, the people carrying those guns will be either School Resource Officers (or SROs, the armed cops found in many public middle and high schools) or full-time school personnel who have gone through an expensive and, Hutchinson said, rigorous training procedure. That includes a lengthy background check for those who would carry guns. Hutchinson's task force recommends the NRA take the lead in assessing school safety plans and training those armed personnel. (Officially, the task force is independent from the NRA, though the group funds it and pays Hutchinson.) In a statement, the NRA said, "We need time to digest the full report."
Hutchinson said the task force dropped the plan for armed volunteers after schools dismissed the idea.
"In terms of volunteers, my impression from school superintendents is they have great reluctance," he said. "And so that's not the best solution. That's why we have shifted to school staff, trained school staff that's designated by the superintendent and the school board."
Some school systems can't afford SROs for elementary and other non-patrolled schools, Hutchinson said, and so the trained staff option may be a cheaper way for them to go. But volunteers — once a lynchpin of the NRA's school safety plan — are gone. Hutchinson cited "a liability concern" and "training concerns" along with the "reluctance" from school administrators.
The press conference came as NRA pressure appears to be working on Capitol Hill, with even proposals enjoying overwhelming public support in polls (like expanded background checks) showing signs of collapse. Citing his independence from the NRA, Hutchinson ducked several questions about the gun control battle in Congress from reporters. After the press conference, he criticized one of the biggest boosters of new gun control laws, however.
"Let me just make this comment: I wish Mayor Bloomberg would devote an equivalent amount of money to school safety," Hutchinson told BuzzFeed. "That would really fund many of the initiatives and solve the problem right there. So I'll leave the legislation [to Congress]. I'm smart enough, I've been in Congress long enough that I'll let folks over there comment on that. We're just focused on the funding for the initiatives both from the public and the private sector for school safety."