In the wake of an elementary school shooting in Newtown, Conn., last year, South Dakota has decided to try to deter gun violence in its schools by allowing teachers to pack heat. Gov. Dennis Daugaard signed the bill into law last week. Twenty-four other states are considering similar “school sentinel" bills this year, but South Dakota is the first to legalize it since the Newtown massacre.
Eight states (Hawaii, New Hampshire, Alabama, Arizona, California, Oregon, Rhode Island and Utah) allow concealed firearms in schools, according to Lauren Heintz, an education research analyst with the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL). South Dakota's law is different from all others, though, because it specifically permits school employees -- including volunteers -- to carry guns in schools, Heintz said.
In theory, the school sentinels law is distinct in that it doesn't require firearms in schools to be concealed. But state Sen. Tim Begalka, a sponsor of the legislation, said school districts have the discretion to require guns are concealed, and he expects they will.
"It could be either way, but it was pretty much understood that they would be concealed," Begalka said.
The new state law gives school district boards the ability to decide whether they want to allow their school employees and volunteers to carry guns. All changes, though, must be approved by a local referendum as well.
Proponents point out that the new law requires school employees to take a training course to avoid accidents. Nonetheless, the law -- notable for its promotion of gun ownership in schools at a time when some states are considering gun restrictions -- drew nationwide criticism.
Connecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy denounced school sentinel programs in his State of the State address.
"Freedom is not a handgun on the hip of every teacher, and security should not mean a guard posted outside every classroom," he said.
Addressing the nation's city leaders at a conference this week, Vice President Joe Biden echoed Malloy's remarks: "The last thing we need to do is arm teachers."
Some question the necessity of school sentinel programs in South Dakota, a state with five gun-related homicides in 2011, which is fewer than in all but two other states, according to Uniform Crime Reports collected by the FBI. South Dakota's lawmakers are solving a problem that doesn’t exist, argued David Penn, a resident of Sioux Falls, S.D., in a letter to the editor in the Argus Leader.
“There is no history in South Dakota of violence in schools,” Penn wrote. “This teaches our children that it's OK to solve our problems with violence -- which is ironic given that this attitude is part of the problem. We need to teach our children healthy conflict management, not create a culture of fear.”
The Argus Leader’s own editorial board agreed with Penn: “We must believe and offer hope that with rational security measures such as locked doors and adequate screening of guests, our children are safe to go to school. As horrifying as a school shooting is, and we hope there is never another, arming a school like a fortress asks everyone to pay a different kind of price that is unnecessary and harmful in its own ways.”