Some say guns don't guarantee safety; others say guns can enhance security, especially in rural areas.
For years, Greg Lund carried a loaded gun as a high school principal in northwestern Minnesota. Students, parents and most of the staff at Norman County East High School didn't know he was armed, but Lund said he couldn't leave his students' safety to chance.
"There's little you can do to prevent them from getting in the building," said Lund, a gun safety educator. "It was a small, rural school, and it would be 20 minutes or more before we would have police in the building."
Lund carried the gun with the permission of his superintendent -- and under the provisions of a little-known exemption to the state's general ban on guns in school. The rule says that any adults who have a state permit to carry a gun can bring the firearm to school once they obtain written permission from a principal or other school authority.
Since the Connecticut school massacre last week, some are urging a further relaxing of Minnesota's rules regarding teachers arming themselves, while others want to tighten rules banning guns at school.
Rep. Tony Cornish, R-Vernon Center, said he plans to sponsor a bill allowing teachers to carry loaded weapons in the classroom, with special training for dealing with attackers. Meanwhile, a local gun advocacy group is offering firearms instruction for educators.
But Brenda Cassellius, the state education commissioner, "feels very strongly that we should be keeping guns out of schools," said spokeswoman Charlene Briner. Gov. Mark Dayton agreed, and he will look at tightening the state ban on guns in schools when the Legislature convenes in January, said his spokeswoman, Katharine Tinucci.
Andrew Rothman, vice president of Minnesota Gun Owners Civil Rights Alliance, said that as a parent, "I want to know that the school is prepared and equipped to keep my children safe." Rothman said that there are already teachers carrying guns in Minnesota schools, although he declined to say how many.
Seward Montessori lockdown
Evidence for his view turned up Wednesday at Seward Montessori School in Minneapolis, which was locked down for much of the day after police discovered a teacher's aide had a loaded .357 Magnum handgun in her locker.
The gun was discovered about an hour into the school day. The weapon was confiscated and the teacher's aide was placed on administrative leave, but students were confined to their classrooms for the remainder of the day. Police are investigating whether the woman's action could result in a misdemeanor criminal charge, but school officials said district policy bans guns, with very limited exceptions, such as police or military use, color guards or staff training.
Joseph Olson, president of the alliance and a law professor at Hamline University, helped to write the exceptions to the law banning guns in schools as part of the 2003 negotiations over the state's permit to carry law. Their purpose, he said, was to allow for a raft of reasons guns might enter schools, for example, for historical and gun training lessons, plays and for self-defense.
"We knew we couldn't think of everything that would be a legitimate reason, so we put in the general permission provision, which of course covers a teacher or a parent who normally carries for self-defense," he said.
Survey of school districts
But Rep. Michael Paymar, DFL-St.Paul, incoming chairman of the House Public Safety Finance and Policy committee, said he didn't believe self-defense was the purpose of that 2003 exception. Many local educators and parents reject the suggestion to arm school workers.
"I cannot even imagine a situation where we would consider giving people permission to carry guns in school," Richfield Schools Superintendent Robert Slotterback said. "You're not going to have a gun drawn. If they walk up to you, point a gun and fire, it doesn't matter if you have a gun in your pocket or not."
A number of metro school districts contacted this week said no civilian staff carry guns. Schools in Osseo and West St. Paul-Mendota Heights-Eagan have blanket policies barring guns on school property. In St. Paul and Anoka-Hennepin, petitioners must get clearance from the superintendent and no one has received that clearance. The state Department of Education does not track how many, if any, exceptions to the law have been granted statewide.
Introducing more guns to school security plans could cause new problems, said Dave Pecchia, executive director of the Minnesota Chiefs of Police Association.
"Once you do have weapons in the school, you have an issue with access," he said. "How can you ensure that the wrong people don't get access to the weapon?"
Security expert Steve Wilder said he's not opposed to the concept, if the guns are handled properly.
Guns should not be in the hands of classroom teachers or others who are in regular contact with children, he said. Parents and community members should be informed. Armed staff members should be trained, qualified and certified to handle a weapon in school shooter situations.
Still, he said, there's a long list of measures schools can take before introducing deadly weapons into school buildings, including locking doors, beefing up lower-story windows and enforcing policies limiting access overall.
Lund has been retired a few years, but continues to believe there is a place for guns at school. His superintendent at the time he was a principal agreed reluctantly.
"His statement to me was, 'I want to know when you're carrying,'" he recalled, "and I said, 'Larry, I'm always carrying.'"
Maria Elena Baca • 612-673-4409