National Rifle Association (NRA) task force unveiled a student-safety plan Tuesday that dismisses the idea of new gun controls in favor of the placement of armed staff in every school.
At a Washington press briefing crawling with armed security, former Rep. Asa Hutchinson (R-Ark.), the head of the NRA task force, said a focus on tougher gun laws is "inadequate" to protect the nation's schoolchildren from gun violence in the wake of December's Newtown, Conn., elementary school massacre. He released a 225-page report outlining a "School Shield" program that calls instead for new funding to train school staff to carry firearms on site.
"The presence of an armed security personnel in a school adds a layer of security and diminishes the response time that is beneficial to the overall security [of that school]," Hutchinson said.
Hutchinson, the former administrator of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, was quick to concede that not all districts will want – or will have the resources – to train and maintain armed guards in their schools.
"We want to make sure that our best practices and our resources are available to them, whatever decision they make," Hutchinson said. But he emphasized that students would be safest if school personnel are armed.
"It is a plus," he said.
The School Shield report includes a host of other recommendations, including changes in state laws to allow school staff to carry firearms, an increase in coordination between schools and local law enforcement agencies, even architectural tweaks to make a school's door hinges tougher to breach.
Most of the details of the plan, however, remain vague. Hutchinson said he did not know, for instance, how much it would cost to maintain armed staff in a school. And the task force declined to make specific recommendations about what kinds of weapons would be most effective in protecting schools, or how many armed staff should be maintained per student. Those decisions, Hutchinson said, are better left for local officials.
The report arrives as Congress and a long list of state legislatures are debating how best to keep firearms out of the hands of violent people. In direct response to the Newtown shooting, for instance, state lawmakers in Connecticut are close to passing some of the toughest gun restrictions in the country, including an extension of the state's assault weapons ban and an expansion of criminal background checks to precede all gun sales.
Hutchinson on Tuesday called those steps "totally inadequate," suggesting that school-safety efforts have nothing to do with gun control.
"You can address assault weapons and it doesn't stop someone bringing in a .45 caliber firearm into the school. It doesn't stop violence in the school," he said. "So if you're going to protect children, you have to do something about school safety and enhancing our safety matrix in school.
"I have not focused on the separate debate in Congress about firearms and how they should be handled," he added.
The American Federation of Teachers (AFT) wasted no time blasting the recommendations as misguided.
"Schools must be safe, nurturing learning environments for our students, which is why we are opposed to proposals to arm educators or turn our schools into armed fortresses," AFT President Randi Weingarten said Tuesday in a statement. "Safety personnel and safety plans have their place in schools, but we must leave those decisions to the people who know our schools best—not to those acting as a proxy for gun manufacturers."
The NRA maintains that Hutchinson and the task force acted with its funding, but not its input. The NRA issued a brief statement Tuesday intended to emphasize that separation.
"We need time to digest the full report," it said.
Still, Hutchinson's focus is fully consistent with the NRA's push after Newtown for a national program featuring more guns in schools to protect kids.
Security was thick during Tuesday's briefing at the National Press Club, with at least a dozen members of the security detail monitoring the lobby, the halls and even the bathrooms long before Hutchinson took the podium – a rare occurrence in that venue, and one that wasn't overlooked by the crowd of reporters.
Hutchinson, for his part, said the heavy security is just business as usual.
"If you go into a mall, there's security, and so there's security here at the National Press Club," Hutchison said.
Reporters noted, however, that there's not usually security at the National Press Club. One asked Hutchinson if he was afraid of something.
"There's nothing I'm afraid of," Hutchinson said. "I'm very wide open. There's nothing I'm nervous about."