Gun regulations were the subject of lengthy debate Tuesday as a Senate committee heard seven House bills relating to firearms.
Two bills took up the lion’s share of testimony and drew opposition from state officials.
One that would allow people with concealed weapon permits to carry firearms in schools was opposed by Superintendent of Public Instruction Kirsten Baesler.
A bill barring local and state law enforcement agencies from assisting federal officials in the enforcement gun control laws enacted after Jan. 1, 2013 drew opposition from Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem.
Rep. Dwight Kiefert, R-Valley City, introduced HB1215, which would allow people with concealed weapon permits to carry firearms on school grounds if a school policy allows it. Discussion on adopting a concealed firearm policy could be done in executive session. Law enforcement officers would need to be notified of who has been granted permission to carry a firearm.
Kiefert said some larger schools in the state may have school resource officers, but other districts can’t afford them and are vulnerable. He pointed to Valley City and the surrounding area as an example.
“The response time could easily be 10 minutes,” Kiefert said. In rural areas outside of the city, it could be 30 minutes or more, he said.
Kiefert asked the committee to consider what would happen if a school shooting occurred somewhere in North Dakota. He said the public likely would ask: “Why didn’t the Legislature do something to protect our children?”
Under HB1215, a potential shooter “would no longer have the peace of mind of walking into a school” to open fire without anyone there to stop him, Kiefert said.
Baesler said the Department of Public Instruction initially took a neutral stance. That changed after she heard an “overwhelming sentiment” of anxiety over the bill from school administrators and staff around the state, as well as from some students, she said.
Baesler said prevention is a more effective way to deal with potential incidents than allowing people with firearms on school grounds.
“What we’re really deciding at that point is minimizing the damage rather than preventing (it),” Baesler said.
As a school administrator, she said, she has been involved in three potentially serious incidents that school staff were able to handle before they could become violent.
“These things don’t make the news … but they are happening,” Baesler said.
Troy Schuchard, a social studies teacher at Glen Ullin High School, also opposed HB1215.
“It makes me nervous as a teacher, having to have that responsibility,” Schuchard said.
Dakota Draper, president of the North Dakota Education Association, said school faculty members see no need for such legislation.
“I have yet to have one educator say, ‘We need to bring guns into schools,’” Draper said.
HB1183 would bar state law enforcement officers from assisting federal agencies in the enforcement of any federal gun legislation enacted after Jan 1, 2013.
Rep. Roscoe Streyle, R-Minot, said the bill was amended to make violations carry civil penalties instead of a criminal penalties.
“I think it provides protections to them (law enforcement) as well,” Streyle said.
Attorney General Stenehjem said the bill is unnecessary and puts law enforcement in an untenable position.
“Some bills just need to die, and this is one of them,” Stenehjem said.
Streyle called attempts on the federal level to enact tougher gun legislation a “grave assault on our liberty.” He said the state shouldn’t assist in the enforcement of any new federal gun restrictions “because they’re clearly unconstitutional.”
Rep. Bette Grande, R-Fargo, spoke in favor of HB1183. Grande said tragic shootings stir a desire from the public to react, but she said there are limits to lawmakers’ authority in gun legislation.
“The Constitution is quite clear on this issue,” Grande said.
When she was a high school student in Williston years ago, she said, a large number of vehicles in the school parking lot each day had guns visible in them. Today, she said, to do so is considered unthinkable.
“What has changed in our society?” Grande said. “We live in a time of greater risk.”
Grande said in a time with more risk, people shouldn’t be restricted in their right to defend themselves.
Stenehjem said the bill would complicate the relationship between state and federal agencies. He said the attorney general’s office represents state agencies in lawsuits and if HB1183 passed and a lawsuit was filed, his office could then be sued for doing that.
No action was taken by the committee on any of the bills heard Tuesday.