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Analysis: Arkansas GOP talks school safety, but not guns

March 3, 2018

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — With dueling hearings and panels in the wake of Florida’s school massacre, Arkansas’ Republican governor and lawmakers have made it clear they want school security on the agenda when they return to the Capitol for next year’s session. But, unlike Republican counterparts in other states and even the president, they’re declaring the issue of gun control off-limits.

A commission Gov. Asa Hutchinson formed to look at school safety issues puts the former congressman in a familiar spot five years after he spearheaded a similar effort for the National Rifle Association following the 2012 school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut. And just like the previous effort, Hutchinson is trying to steer to discussion away from any limits on firearms and toward other issues like securing school facilities and mental health.

“I don’t think further gun control is a solution to school safety,” Hutchinson told reporters. “We want to focus on this. This is something we agree upon. That’s the exclusive mission of this commission.”

It’s not a surprising stance for Hutchinson, who signed into law a measure last year that dramatically expanded where concealed handguns are allowed. He faces a longshot challenge in the May primary from Jan Morgan, a gun range owner who’s criticized Hutchinson for supporting a follow-up measure that exempted college stadiums from the concealed carry law.

His proposal also comes after fellow Arkansas Republicans have announced their own hearings on school safety measures, also making it clear that they want to steer clear of the gun rights debate in any legislation they want to take up. Another Republican lawmaker, Sen. Trent Garner, has already unveiled proposals he said he wants to push for during next year’s session that include having veterans and off-duty police officers voluntarily guard schools.

“I think it’s time to start nailing down specific policy ideas and make adjustments within those narrow ideas,” Garner said.

Similar ideas are being explored elsewhere, but Republicans in other states are also more willing to take a look at limits that so far aren’t gaining much traction among GOP lawmakers here. Florida Gov. Rick Scott, a Republican, has called for raising the minimum age to buy firearms from 18 to 21 and making it harder for some with mental illnesses to buy guns. President Donald Trump has also signaled willingness to look at some restrictions.

Democrats in the state say there needs to at least be a willingness to talk about the issue, rather than taking it off the table entirely.

“We’re here to make the hard decisions and go back out to the public and say, ‘you may not like this, but here is why and this is what we’re doing,’” said state Rep. Michael John Gray, who chairs the state Democratic Party. “If we’re not at least willing to at least have those hard conversations, then we’re not doing the job we were sent to do.”

One area Democratic lawmakers have already said they want to visit is banning guns in dorm rooms. A provision in the rules for the concealed carry law allows gun in dorm rooms if they’re kept within arm’s reach of the person with the enhanced concealed handgun license. But some lawmakers say they’re also working on “red flag” legislation that would allow family members or police to ask judges to temporarily strip gun rights from people who show warning signs of violence.

“We’re just trying to take common sense steps that a majority of Americans support to reduce gun violence,” Democratic state Rep. Greg Leding said. “I think that should be a part of this conversation.”

Winning support for any new limits would be a major shift for Arkansas, where Democrats had once been skittish about running afoul of the NRA or appearing anti-gun. The next several months could test whether that culture has changed in Arkansas.

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Andrew DeMillo has followed Arkansas government and politics for The Associated Press since 2005. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/ademillo

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