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Michigan House to explore arming teachers, 'red flag' laws

By Alice Yin/Associated Press • Mar 4, 2018 at 12:00 PM

LANSING — Michigan legislators and the governor's office are roiling over two gun-control measures: arming trained teachers and removing guns from individuals with mental health symptoms.

State capitols across America are revisiting gun legislation after the deadliest U.S. school shooting in the last five years ripped through Parkland, Florida. In Lansing, one bill under development would permit teachers and staff to carry firearms inside schools, an idea seeing national resurgence since President Donald Trump floated support in the wake of the Florida tragedy.

Other suggestions percolating in the Republican-controlled Legislature touch upon mental health, an ongoing theme in the nation's recent gun-control conversations, though Lansing is divided on how to restrict firearms from individuals with mental illnesses. An idea already introduced in current bills — and endorsed by the governor — is "red flag" legislation to enact a procedure for temporarily confiscating guns from individuals in a threatening mental health crisis.

Michigan's emerging legislation on school security would exempt specially trained school personnel from the state's concealed carry restrictions in pistol-free zones, said Rep. Jim Runestad, chair of the House Judiciary Committee. Current law prohibits concealed carry inside designated gun-free zones, including schools.

"My impetus is I have a 16-year-old daughter in public school," the White Lake Republican said. "There is nothing standing in the way of that shooter and the time lag for the police."

The governor's office and House leadership have not publicly commented on the proposal. A spokeswoman for Gov. Rick Snyder, Tanya Baker, said he will carefully consider any bill reaching his desk, while House Speaker Tom Leonard, R-DeWitt, said he is willing to have conversations on school safety but is "going to continue to stay focused on mental health."

Senate leadership showed more enthusiasm for the idea. Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof, a Republican from West Olive, said "at this point we could use any volunteers that would want to protect our kids."

Runestad said vetting for interested teachers would be highly rigorous given that "there are many teachers I wouldn't trust with a butter knife, let alone a pistol." The upcoming bills would require selected staff members to undergo 80 hours of training, renewed every two years, though they would be paid for their time, he said. All firearms would be tucked away in a secure location, he said, such as a safe with a fingerprint lock.

"You can buy these for $100 at Costco," Runestad said. "No one else can open them. It negates so much of what you hear about the objections."

Rep. Brian Elder said as the husband of a teacher, the idea of most teachers electing to carry firearms isn't realistic and he instead wants to see the House approve universal background checks.

"Nuns are not signing up to become Catholic school teachers in order to tote guns around," the Bay City Democrat said.

Laws permitting armed staff personnel are in place in over 10 states. In Florida, legislators approved a similar bill this week despite protests from survivors of its recent shooting.

Snyder has mostly focused his public gun-control message on "red-flag" legislation. Baker, his deputy press secretary, said Snyder wants to explore the measure, which would legalize a procedure to remove guns from people determined to be too dangerous to possess them.

Leaders in both chambers expressed due-process qualms on the "red flag" proposal, which has been introduced in bills but remains stuck in committee. Leonard said Thursday that some law enforcement officials indicated "very serious concerns" about the idea. Meekhof, the Senate majority leader, compared the tip-off system to the federal No Fly List.

"A kid can't be willy-nilly saying, 'I don't like this person; I'm going to make a report," and therefore their guns are confiscated," said Meekhof. "That's not OK."

Emily Durbin, a 43-year-old grassroots activist from Williamstom, said that wasn't a fair comparison because the proposed removal is temporary and initiated by law enforcement or the individual's loved ones.

"This is about enabling the best person to know who is at imminent risk," said Durbin, leader of the Michigan chapter of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America. "We think it has the best shot at preventing another national tragedy out of the many proposals floating around now."

On Wednesday, Durbin was part of the throng of over 300 activists who descended on the steps of the Capitol and into the offices of lawmakers to tout the red flag proposal. Five states have similar laws in place, but legislation is under review in more than a dozen states.

Sgt. Tim Fitzgerald of the Michigan State Police said the department is still evaluating the wave of gun-control measures.

Democrats in Michigan's statehouse are backing universal background checks as a response to the call to stop mentally ill people from owning guns. On Friday, the state received a "C'' rating from the Giffords Law Center's Annual Gun Law Scorecard grades on gun safety.

Elder acknowledges there is an uphill road in pushing firearm-restricting bills to receive their day on the House floor. Several gun-control bills are tied up in the House Judiciary Committee.

"Everyone has got to ask why is the Republican caucus refusing to allow us to even have the discussion on these issues," Elder said. "If these bills actually came up ... we would get Republican votes."

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