The National Rifle Association said Friday it wants armed police officers in every school, raising costs questions from Republican legislators who normally are their natural allies but picking up support of a key Democrat.
“We care about our money, so we protect our banks with armed guards,” said NRA President Wayne LaPierre at a press conference. Ditto, he said for airports, office buildings, power plants, court houses and sports stadiums.
“Yet when it comes to the most beloved, innocent and vulnerable members of the American family, our children, we as a society leave them utterly defenseless, and the monsters and predators of this world know it and exploit it,” he said. “That must change now.”
LaPierre is specifically suggesting Congress come up with the necessary cash, though he had no dollar figure. But he brushed aside GOP budget-balancing concerns, saying the government has a lot of money to spend on things like foreign aid.
Arizona House Minority Leader Chad Campbell said more federal money would help. But the Phoenix Democrat said much of what LaPierre wants could be accomplished — and sooner — if the Legislature would restore the money it cut from a program to fund armed school safety officers.
Campbell said in the 2008-09 school year the state provided more than $14.6 million in grants to schools. Now the figure is $7.8 million. And that money exists only because it is guaranteed under a 2000 voter-approved sales tax hike, money the Legislature cannot touch.
Some school districts use their own dollars to fund officers.
Campbell acknowledged that amount of money would only begin to touch the cost of putting a police officer — or even a trained, armed security person — in each of the state’s nearly 2,000 school buildings. But Campbell, like La Pierre, said he believes there is money to be had.
“Why don’t we take the $50 million for private prisons?” he suggested.
Rep. John Kavanagh, R-Fountain Hills, who chairs the House Appropriations Committee, blanched at the idea of having the state absorb the cost.
“That would be a phenomenal expense and it would detract from other educational expenditures,” he said. “And I don’t think it’s necessary.”
House Speaker Andy Tobin said he does not see having an armed police officer or security guard in a school as providing protection for all the students.
“What about kids who get on a bus to go to the zoo?” he asked. “Are you going to send a cop with them?”
But LaPierre, in his statement to the press, made it clear he thinks an officer in a school is better than none at all.
“Would you rather have your 911 call bring a good guy with a gun from a mile away or a minute away?” he said.
Tobin, a Republican from Paulden, said it’s not just the state that cut money. He cited a 2009 decision by the Obama administration to not renew programs that provided $200 million for schools for training, security equipment and police.
Campbell agrees with Tobin on that point and said the federal government has a role. But he said the state cannot ignore its obligation to provide safe schools.
“I’m so tired of arguments from the Right that we don’t have money for programs like this when they hand out corporate welfare and special interest handouts every single day down there,” he said. “We can fund protecting our kids.”
Tucsonan Todd Rathner, a member of the NRA board, said the Legislature needs to be part of any solution for school security.
“These are our kids,” he said. “So everybody has a role.”
Rathner said the NRA will take the issue to the Republican-controlled Legislature which convenes next month.
“I know that sometimes there is a reluctance on the part of our Republican friends to appropriate money for certain things because they believe in smaller government,” he said.
“But there are certain roles for government,” Rathner continued. “And certainly if we’re going to have public schools then they ought to be protected.”
Tobin, however, said he’s not convinced that schools need more money from the state.
He said that lawmakers have started to restore some of the cuts made when the state faced a $3 billion deficit. And Tobin said schools were given flexibility to use what money they got for whatever they needed.
Andrew Morrill, president of the Arizona Education Association, agreed with Tobin that decisions on what security is appropriate in each school — and how much to spend — should be left to local boards. But he said that the cutbacks in state aid mean that things like funding armed officers would come at the expense of dollars for classroom expenses.
Morrill also said the NRA plan is far preferable to some proposals to arm individual teachers, which he called “a flat-out bad idea.”
Rathner said a big boost in government funding for police officers may be needed only for a short time. He said the NRA envisions a program where his organization trains people, including volunteers, to provide armed protection.
Matthew Benson, press aide to Gov. Jan Brewer, said in a prepared statement that school safety “is sure to be a key topic” in the upcoming legislative session. He said Brewer is committed to working with legislators and state School Superintendent John Huppenthal “to make sure our schools have the resources they require to keep classrooms safe.”
Huppenthal did not return repeated calls seeking comment.