School Climate & Safety

Powerful Rifles At Center of Gun Debates Are Also Used by Some School Police

By Evie Blad — June 23, 2016 5 min read
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Recent debates over guns, which have touched heavily on school violence, have often focused on the availability of powerful semi-automatic rifles. So it may come as a surprise that some school district police departments stock these types of guns, including AR-15s and modified weapons obtained through a military surplus program.

Questions about whether school-based officers should obtain or carry such powerful weapons run parallel to a larger question in debates over how to prevent school shootings: Is the burden of addressing such rare but devastating incidents on schools, which have fortified their safety measures in recent years? Or should society at large play a greater role through changes like tighter gun restrictions and increased access to mental health programs?

Newtown Families Sued the Maker of the AR-15

Among the incidents frequently mentioned in U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy’s 15-hour floor speech that led to failed Senate votes on four gun-related bills this week: The shooter in the killings of 49 people at a gay nightclub in Orlando used a Sig Sauer MCX rifle, and the gunman in the 2012 shootings of 26 schoolchildren and adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., used a Bushmaster AR-15 rifle, both semi-automatic rifles known for speed and ease of use.

Sandy Hook also played a major role in House Democrats sit-in to push for votes on gun-related bills, which started Wednesday morning.

Families of Sandy Hook victims have filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Bushmaster Firearms, arguing that the AR-15 was “designed as a military weapon,” was “designed to deliver maximum carnage with extreme efficiency,” and that it has “little utility for legitimate civilian purposes.” The defendants “chose to disregard the unreasonable risks the rifle posed outside of specialized, highly regulated institutions like the armed forces and law enforcement,” the suit says.

“Time and again, mentally unstable individuals and criminals have acquired an AR-15 with ease, and they have unleashed the rifle’s lethal power into our streets, our malls, our places of worship, and our schools,” the complaint says.

But attorneys for Remington Arms, the parent company of Bushmaster, argued in a motion to dismiss the case that it’s not the role of the court to determine if it is appropriate for civilians to possess such powerful weapons.

“It’s not the role of this court or perhaps a jury to decide whether civilians as a broad class of people are not appropriate to own these kinds of firearms,” James Vogts, an attorney for Remington Arms, said at a hearing this week, according to Reuters.

Also this week, the U.S. Supreme Court left in place state-level bans on military-style assault weapons in New York and Connecticut.

School Police Acquire AR-15s, Semi-Automatic Rifles

Would Republican- or Democrat-backed bills voted down by the Senate this week have prevented any mass shootings? That’s a question for another blogger, but you can read about how some previous shooters got their guns in this New York Times feature.

One thing is for sure: The use of powerful weapons capable of killing with speed and accuracy has weighed heavily in school safety discussions. Around the country, lawmakers have passed measures requiring more regular school lock-down drills, annual audits of school safety plans, and inspections of buildings to find ways to limit access and passage for armed intruders. When perpetrators are armed with such powerful weapons, quick response times are key, school safety experts say.

And, in some cases, school police have opted to carry semi-automatic rifles themselves, sometimes raising questions from parents and civil rights advocates concerned about the role of police in schools. A few examples:

  • School-based police in at least 22 districts in eight states have acquired modified M-14 and M-16 rifles, grenade launchers, and fortified vehicles through a military surplus program, watchdog groups found in 2014. The Los Angeles School Police Department, which had 61 of the rifles, defended them as “essential life-saving items,” but the agency later committed to returning them to the Department of Defense under pressure from community activists.
  • In 2013, the president of the San Diego school board questioned school police officers’ use of AR-15s, a decision that was made without board approval, the Union-Tribune reported. The weapons had been deployed when schools were put on lockdown due to a shooting threat.
  • In 2015, the school board in Compton Unified in south Los Angeles County approved a policy that would allow school police there to carry AR-15s in the trunks of their patrol cars, drawing national media coverage. Critics called the use of such weapons a “needless escalation of force,” NBC reported. But, “supporters of the proposal say the standard police handgun is not capable of piercing soft body armor and are only accurate up to 25 feet,” the report said. “They say in an active shooter scenario, the standard issue weapon might not be enough to stop the threat to students and staff.”

There’s not national data on the kind of weapons school police use, and those who carry semi-automatic rifles seem to be in the minority. But there are also examples of school police carrying semi-automatic rifles, typically in their vehicles, in places like Utah, Colorado, Florida.

What do you think? Should school-based officers carry such weapons? Should schools take other steps to address student safety?

Photo: A newly assembled AR-15 rifle is displayed in 2013 at the Stag Arms company in New Britain, Conn. --Charles Krupa/AP-File

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Rules for Engagement blog.