ST. ALBANS — Some members of the Vermont Legislature are seeking change to the state law regarding guns on school property. With support from local officials, members of the Franklin County delegation have drafted a bill that would ban firearms and deadly weapons from all school property.
The effort locally follows a Sept. 30, 2013 incident on a Franklin County school campus where weapons of all kinds were found in a student’s car.
Currently, Section 4004 of Title 13 makes it a crime to possess a firearm or deadly weapon within a school building, on a school bus, or with intent to cause harm. Without explicit reference, the criminal statute excludes from its coverage the possession of firearms in other places on school property, such as in cars.
“I believe that was an oversight,” said Rep. Carolyn Branagan, R-Georgia. Branagan, president of the Franklin County delegation, drafted the bill with fellow delegation members Rep. Kathy Keenan, Rep. Mike McCarthy, and Rep. Cindy Weed to add the words “on school property” to the existing statute.
“That will add the football field, the parking lot, the playground, anywhere there’s land that the school owns,” said Branagan.
Branagan and local officials agreed that the catalyst for the bill’s creation was an incident in October of last year that occurred on the campus of Bellows Free Academy, St. Albans when a 17-year-old MVU student was found to have guns, knives, and ammunition in his car. The student brought the car to BFA’s Northwest Technical Center to be worked on by other students. It was then that the weapons were discovered. The state’s attorney determined the student had no intentions of harming others and therefore did not violate the law. No charges were brought against him on the state level.
“This really startled me, especially in light of the tragedies in schools we’ve seen in recent years,” said BFA Principal Chris Mosca. “I was stunned to learn that there were no charges necessarily in the state law, since the weapons on the premises weren’t on a bus or in the building.”
“I think this incident really got all of our attention, by virtue of the number of the weapons that were in the vehicle,” added St. Albans Police Chief Gary Taylor. “I’m just looking at the report going, really? Do you really need to go hunting with stun guns and a machete and shot guns, rifles, handguns? Do you really need to do that?”
“This distinction [in the current law] is clearly in place to address students who have mistakenly left their hunting rifle in their gun rack after hunting,” said Julie Regimbal, Franklin Central Supervisory Union interim superintendent.
As officials mentioned, much of the discussion surrounding firearms in Vermont is framed around the prevalence of hunting. Branagan relayed a conversation she had with her brother about the proposed bill during which he recalled hunting squirrels with his friends on the way to and from school.
“In their opinion, it was great sport,” she said. “But times are different now. You can’t do that. You can’t leave a gun full of bullets in your car and then expect to use it hunting after school.”
Branagan and Taylor have no qualms about students hunting, but share the belief that firearms shouldn’t be kept at school in the mean time.
“If they’ve got their parents’ blessing, then let them go home and get their gun when they get out of school,” Taylor said. “Even if you have to make a trip home, that makes more sense to me.”
“My personal opinion is that there is no time ever when guns belong in schools outside the current policy,” said Branagan, citing those explicit exceptions as school law enforcement and safety resource officers, hunter safety classes, and some 4-H classes. “Those occasions are all already covered and allowed in policy statewide.”
Mosca raised another point of consideration regarding the general nature of teenagers.
“My concern primarily is access,” he said. “Teens are impulsive sometimes, and there’s confrontation…a myriad things could happen if there is the temptation of having a weapon in close proximity.”
Taylor mirrored this sentiment. “It’s my opinion that particularly high school age individuals are highly volatile. Sometimes I think they do things without thinking a lot,” he said. “So what happens to the kid who has a weapon in his vehicle and somebody does something to offend him … and he feels that the only way he can stand up to that individual is by going to his vehicle and getting that?”
Above all, legislators and officials both hope to prevent that situation from coming to fruition in Vermont schools.
“To me, it’s a common sense approach,” said Mosca, referring to the bill. “I think it’s a very prudent measure. I think it’s very sound, I don’t think it’s an infringement. I think people need to think twice when they enter a school zone.”
Branagan knows not everyone will feel this way. “I realize this is going to be somewhat controversial,” she said, “but we live in different times than we did 40 years ago when I was in school.”
Taylor spoke about the issue with other police chiefs in the state and found that while some shared his view, others did not.
“I did hear from three different chiefs from rural areas who said, ‘not an issue. Don’t see any reason to change anything, kids hunt in my area, they bring guns to school, never had a problem,’” he said.
Representing Georgia, which she says is still a relatively rural area, Branagan cites the popularity of hunting within her own district. Even so, when it comes to the issue of school safety, she says her constituents are generally supportive of this venture. After speaking about the issue with National Guard members, hunters, and gun owners, Branagan said, “They all seem to understand.”
Now, Branagan and other legislators are working on the bill in response to concerns from both officials and constituents.
“In the Town of Georgia, I’ve had very positive responses, especially from parents,” she said.
“I’ve had those phone calls, I’ve had those e-mails,” said Taylor. “I heard from a pretty wide audience about [if] we really need to have guns on school grounds.”
“My hope is to ensure the safety of students,” said Mosca. “I think the vast majority, if not every student, wants a safe environment. They don’t want to face harm.”
Regimbal, who serves three school districts, echoed Mosca’s concern. “Given the incidents of school gun violence in this country, I support changing this law,” she said.
Law enforcement, education, and legislative officials expressed a shared goal of reducing risk when it comes to guns on school grounds.
“We are all trying hard to be vigilant,” said Taylor. “We plan for the worst and hope for the best. We really put a lot of effort into thinking about ‘what if?’”
“And who knows?” he continued. “Maybe nothing ever happens. But shame on us if we allow the circumstances to be developed where an event could occur.”
The Franklin County delegation firearms bill has been drafted and is being circulated for signatures in the Legislature. Branagan expects it to be filed soon.
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The Messenger report regarding the Sept. 30, 2013 weapons incident at the Northwest Technical Center is posted on the newspaper’s website (www.samessenger.com/public-safety-guns-found-inside-car-at-tech-center).