MARSHALL, NC – The North Carolina Sheriff’s Office has placed AR-15 rifles under lock and key at a school district’s six campuses as an added security measure for the upcoming school year in response to the mass shooting at a school in Uvalde, Texas.
It’s a move the North Carolina sheriff says will help law enforcement respond to potential violence in schools. But experts told USA TODAY the idea is unlikely to work and is the wrong approach to curbing gun violence.
Madison County Sheriff Buddy Harwood has promoted the idea as the nation reels from the botched police response in Uvalde, Texas. The tragedy revealed systemic failures and poor decision-making, with responding police disregarding active shooter training, according to a Texas state house report.
“Hopefully we never need it, but I want my guys to be as prepared as possible,” Harwood said.
If an active shooter situation occurs, the Sheriff’s Office has stored semi-automatic weapons in locked safes at every Madison County school. The safes also contain extra magazines, ammunition and breaching tools, Harwood said.
“In case we have someone barricaded in a doorway, we won’t have to wait for the fire department,” he added. “We’ll have those tools to be able to break down that door if we need to. I don’t want to have to run back to the car to grab an AR, because that’s wasted time.”
But national gun safety experts told USA TODAY they disagreed with the idea.
Allison Anderman, senior counsel and director of local policy at the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, said the response to the country’s “unique epidemic of gun violence” is “horrible.”
“Where there are more guns, there is more gun violence,” Anderman said.
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Efforts to get more guns into schools for gun violence prevention distract from the real problem, according to Anderman. “We need to make it much more difficult for people who intend to harm and commit violence to access guns in the first place,” he said.
Anderman said students in the district are “much more likely” to be killed by firearms from acts of domestic violence, interpersonal community violence, suicide or accidental shootings.
“Those are the real risks that guns pose to students on a daily basis,” he said. “If they want their students to be safer, they should advocate for the solutions we know work, like expanded background checks, extreme risk protection order laws, waiting periods, secure storage, etc.”
While the lens of school resource officers potentially handling AR-15s in schools may be uncomfortable for some, Harwood said he feels it’s a necessary response.
“I hate that we’ve gotten to a place in our nation where I have to put a safe in our schools and lock it down so my officers can acquire an AR-15,” Harwood said. He added that school resource officers have trained with instructors from Asheville-Buncombe Technical Community College.
“We can turn it off and say it’s not going to happen in Madison County, but you never know,” Harwood said. “I want Madison County parents to know that we are going to take whatever steps are necessary to ensure our children are safe in this school system.”
Andy Pelosi, co-founder and CEO of the Campaign to Keep Guns off Campus, told USA TODAY that he doesn’t think adding high-powered firearms to campuses will make a difference in an active shooter situation.
“We saw the firepower law enforcement had in response on Uvalde, and they still didn’t break down the door for over an hour,” Pelosi said.
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Both he and Anderman expressed concern that someone other than a deputy officer or school resource officer could access the locked safe.
Pelosi said schools need to plan for worst-case scenarios, but the focus of gun violence prevention needs to shift to how shooters access guns.
“Part of this discussion has to be, ‘Where do the young people doing these acts get their guns?'” he said. “We should ban military-style assault weapons and high-capacity magazines.”
There hasn’t been an assault weapons ban since the previous 10-year federal ban on rifles expired in 2004, Pelosi noted. The House of Representatives recently passed a firearms ban that is expected to fail on a Senate vote.
Adding semi-automatic weapons is just one part of Madison County Schools’ enhanced security measures.
Assigning student resource officers, social workers and counselors to each school, adding a panic button system in each building and having a school district safety liaison are some of Madison County’s other safety initiatives, according to Superintendent Will. Hoffmann.