Arizona Still Grappling with Question of How to Prevent School Shootings

click to enlarge March for our Lives protest in Tucson. - DANYELLE KHMARA

  • Danyelle Khmara
  • March for our Lives protest in Tucson.

Gun legislation in Arizona remains a hot-button issue going into election season. Gov. Doug Ducey’s proposed school safety plan, which was unveiled in March, was a contentious bill since Arizona lawmakers can’t agree whether “school safety” and “gun reform” are synonymous.

The bill was proposed as a proactive measure towards preventing any more school shootings like the February attack Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. The bill passed in the Senate with full support from Republicans and none from Democrats. But ultimately, the legislation stalled in the House.

“Governor Ducey was disappointed that the Safe Arizona Schools Plan was not passed by the Legislature, but that doesn’t mean that our work is done on the issue,” said Ducey Press Secretary Elizabeth Berry in an email. “School safety is a top priority and the governor is committed to fighting for the common-sense reforms included in the [bill].”

Ducey says that passing his school safety bill is one of his highest priorities going into the next legislative session, should he win re-election. But with his plan facing criticism from both Republicans and Democrats, he will have a challenge seeing it become law if he’s reelected.

Democrats cite the lack of universal background checks as one of the bill’s biggest pitfalls. Ducey’s plan intends to strengthen the existing criminal background check system, allocating $600,000 to do so, but that doesn’t take into account that person-to-person sales aren’t regulated because only federally licensed firearm dealers are required to perform background checks at the point of sale. This is commonly referred to as the “gun show loophole.”

Congressional candidate, Arizona Sen. Steve Smith (R-Maricopa), who sponsored the Safe Arizona Schools Plan, says that while he’s confident that Ducey will be re-elected, the issue is still important enough that it will be addressed—and fast—if he’s not. Smith also thinks gun reform should be addressed at the state level not nationally.

“This is not a gun bill; this is a school safety bill,” Smith said. “We’re talking about keeping people safe as it relates to mass shootings. We aren’t going to get into bump stocks and all of those other areas. If you want to have a debate about that, then run a bill about it.”

The Arizona House of Representatives voted 34-25 in February against a bill to ban bump stocks, House Bill 2023. Ducey’s bill initially had several types of STOP orders—Severe Threat Orders of Protection—that would allow both members of the public and law enforcement to petition Arizona courts to advocate for the removal of firearms from individuals exhibiting severe and imminent signs of threatening behavior.

The bill states that after law enforcement presents a judge with evidence that an individual is dangerous, the judge can require that the person in question undergoes a 21-day observation and mental health examination to determine whether or not the person is a risk.

The bill saw multiple revisions throughout April and was significantly watered down before it got to the floor for a vote. That final version removed the aspect of the STOP order that allowed concerned citizens to petition for one, allowing only members of law enforcement to do so.
Smith says that most people don’t know how to petition a court anyway, so removing that part will allow law enforcement to properly handle concerns.

The STOP orders are one of the most contentious parts of the bill, as Democrats argue that they won’t do enough while Republicans argue that they are an overstep by the government.

Republican gubernatorial candidate Ken Bennett says Ducey’s plan focuses too heavily on seizing guns and that the state should instead arm willing teachers to keep schools safe, referring to the oft-used slogan: “The best way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.”

Smith also argues that the addition of armed forces, whether it be through security resource officers or the arming of teachers, is necessary to keep Arizona schools safe.

“The majority of the people that talk to me want to see the schools be better protected, and inevitably that means that they want somebody on campus to be able to use force and have force available if needed,” he says.

Ducey’s plan would increase the amount of armed security resource officers on school campuses in Arizona. It also would allocate more funds for more trained mental health professionals on school campuses, with $3 million for behavioral and mental health specialists, according to Berry.

While Smith, Ducey and Bennett believe that it is necessary to arm more people to combat mass shooters, Democratic gubernatorial candidate David Garcia doesn’t believe placing more armed officers in schools would create the support system that is necessary to prevent school shootings.

“Those who firmly believe that a crisis would be resolved with a gun fight have been playing too many video games and watching too many movies,” Garcia said. “What we need is eyes, ears and communication . . . in the form of support, not enforcement.”

Garcia argues that in order for Democrats and Republicans to mend the division regarding topics of gun control, Arizona needs a governor who doesn’t receive praise from the NRA.
The NRA publicly supports Ducey’s school safety plan, which Smith praises.

Marissa Ryan is a University of Arizona journalism student and a Tucson Weekly intern.

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