It’s not about the guns

by The City Wire staff ([email protected]) 121 views 

An opinion from Arkansas Attorney General Dustin McDaniel issued this past week has escalated the debate on the rights of carrying guns, the need for additional school safety, and the free will of local government to control their own destiny against state or federal interference.

All this debate will surely spill over into the upcoming political season and possibly become a key issue to voters.

But in reality, the AG’s opinion, which is only a legal opinion on existing laws and itself is non-binding as law, is not about any of those issues directly. The opinion is about the contracting limits of a political subdivision – like a public school.

Let me repeat: This opinion is not directly about allowing guns in schools for safety. That issue is firmly on the state’s legal books. Nor is it about the roles of teachers, principals, or superintendents arming themselves with concealed handguns against an unknown threat.

It is about public schools wanting to sub-divide themselves into private entities, on which the state has existing laws about who may be authorized to provide armed security. More so, in this case, that  public schools, do not have the legal authorization to establish a separate “private” identity.

In other words, it is not legal, under current Arkansas laws, for a public school district to be licensed as a guard company or classifying a school district as a private business authorized to employ its own teachers or administrators as armed guards.

McDaniel, who did not write the opinion but agreed with it in his role as the state’s top legal officer, says the state cannot allow public schools to establish a “private identity” of any means.

What if the public school district decided to establish a restaurant to compete against local, privately owned eateries? What if the public school district decided to enter into an office supply business, to compete against a private  businesses in their community?

McDaniel was a Jonesboro Police patrolman before he earned his law degree. He will no doubt the criticized as siding on the side of local law enforcement officials. It is not the first time we’ve heard that McDaniel, who is a fierce friend to anyone wearing a badge, bends over backward to accommodate law enforcement. As a former member of the Arkansas House of Representatives and now the state’s two-term Attorney General, McDaniel has enjoyed the widespread support of lawmen in each election cycle.

Apparently under current laws, only certified law enforcement trained individuals, including those in the employ of the city police force, or county sheriff’s office, or a former/retired certified, trained law enforcement official, can serve as a “resource officer” in the schools.

There is in the state statutes, an allowance for school districts to contract with an outside private security firm (which has qualified employees meeting state certification) to provide school security. Just like the school district contracts with a local dairy and bread company to provide milk and bread to its school lunch programs.

This is done on a contact bid process – a public bid process where everyone qualified has a chance to earn the tax dollars available to be spent by the school district for that service.

Hollywood’s mythical Los Angeles police Sergeant Joe Friday of Dragnet fame, perhaps said it best: “Just the facts ma’am, just the facts.”

Fact: Current Arkansas law(s) restricts school district employees from carrying guns on public school campuses.

Fact: School Districts are public entities. They are not private companies who can conduct business at their own pleasure and leisure. They must comply with all types of state laws.

Fact: The General Assembly would be the proper body to modify any changes in statutes prohibiting school employees from carrying firearms on school property.

Fact: All this debate won’t return the $70,000 that the Clarksville Public School District has already spent on training, arming and equipping some 20 or so school employees (and others) to provide pistol packing security in that district.

Fact: Not all of the school districts who have contracted with private entities to provide security have done it correctly, either.

Fact: There will be no easy legislative fix for this overall problem. The issues are too complex – guns, children, safety and public liability.

Just who asked for this opinion? Well not some guy in the fringe that is for sure.

Perhaps among the most seasoned legislators, the opinion was sought by Rep. Hank Wilkins, D-Pine Bluff, who has also logged his second term in the House and after serving eight years in the state Senate. He has a long, caring legacy for public education.

On Friday (Aug. 2), Wilkins, again, a voice of calm in a storm, was conciliatory toward those public school districts, who according to the AG’s Opinion, may have violated state laws.

“I’m sure that they are well-meaning people who were requesting these licenses and well-meaning people who were declaring (a school district) as private entities for the purpose of providing them with the necessary paperwork to carry guns,” Wilkins said.

More importantly he continued: “I want not only our children to be protected, but quite frankly, I want the adults – as well-meaning as they may be – to be properly protected from liability should something happen.”

Returning Republican gubernatorial candidate and former Congressman Asa Hutchinson, who has worked most recently for the National Rifle Association on a program to put armed security forces in public schools, said, recently: “… teachers should teach and not be part of the armed contingent.”

Those districts which may have run afoul of state laws, according to the AG’s opinion by designating themselves as private companies, included: Ashdown Public School District Clarksville School District, Concord School District, Cutter Morning Star School District, Fort Smith Public School District , Lake Hamilton School District, Lee County School District #1, Little Rock School District, Nettleton Public Schools (Jonesboro), Poyen Public Schools, Pulaski County Special School District, Westside Consolidated School District #5 (Jonesboro), all rethink their plans as school approaches.

The politics of upcoming legislative sessions will heat up over an issue that is not about guns, educating children or local control, but it will be couched that way at every political venue and debate.

The real issue will be that some will seek the ability to allow a public entity to contract with itself in a private manner. That is not a good idea, be it with respect to office supplies, milk, bread, or armed security.