PA bill to arm teachers raises doubts in pro-gun community

A proposal to arm teachers winding its way through the Pennsylvania legislature this year raises some doubt in the pro-gun community about its failure to protect the privacy of school staff who choose to carry while working.

The concern stems from vague language contained within Senate Bill 383, a bill codifying requirements for school districts to meet when drafting policies allowing teachers and staff to carry on school grounds. One of the provisions mandates districts provide law enforcement with a list of names identifying armed staff members at each school.

There’s no directives on how to protect that information, however, before, during or after its disclosure — and that’s a big problem for gun rights attorney Joshua Prince, of Prince Law Offices in southeastern Pennsylvania, an hour east of Philadelphia.

“I fully support having armed school personnel in our schools,” he said in an April blog post. “However, this bill suffers from many issues that appear to have never been considered.”

Pennsylvania’s 501 school districts spread across more than 2,500 municipalities, two-thirds of which rely on state police coverage. Some rural school districts encompass hundreds of square miles, leading to delayed response times, according to bill sponsor Republican Sen. Don White.

“There are thousands of armed teachers and administrators in schools across the country and there has never been an incident where they have shot the wrong person, had their weapons taken by a student, or used a weapon inappropriately,” he said.

Prince told on Thursday the bill requires school employees possess a license to carry a firearm before the district allows them to do so at work, however, the identifying information of license holders “is confidential and not subject to disclosure,” per state law.

“Who is entitled within the school district to see and have access to this information? Are logs to be kept of who views it and when? Is any training on the confidentiality of LTCF applicant information to be provided to school officials who have access to this information? If so, how frequently? Are logs to be kept of their training? These are all important issues that are not addressed, in any form, by the bill,” he said.

Prince said he brought the confidentiality concerns to the attention of several GOP senators — a factor he believes chipped away eight votes from the bill’s overwhelming Republican support. It passed the Senate Wednesday 28-22.

“The Senate was pushing through this bill because it was their understanding that no one could have weapons on school grounds,” he said. “So they saw this as an immediate need, unaware of the decision in February.”

The decision — Commonwealth v. Goslin — determined the vague wording of state law allows for weapons on school property so long as the armed person uses the weapon for a “lawful purpose.”

In this particular case, a carpenter named Andrew Goslin faced a first-degree misdemeanor charge for bringing a pocket knife to a parent-teacher conference at his son’s elementary school in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania in 2014. He appealed his conviction, insisting he used the pocket knife at work and in his life for mundane reasons — such as opening a tuna can in his lunch box — and therefore didn’t deserve the misdemeanor conviction.

The Superior Court panel agreed, vacating his sentence in a Feb. 16 ruling.

“It was a very big decision,” Prince said, noting the ruling establishes self-defense as a lawful purpose for carrying a weapon on school grounds.

Joe Pittman, White’s chief of staff, told Thursday he wasn’t aware of the Goslin case, but remained skeptical of the weight Prince and other bill detractors gave to the case in terms of securing school employees’ rights to carry a gun at work.

“The bill is a work in progress,” he said. “Even though it’s a may-issue, it wouldn’t allow school districts to ban weapons outright. It just gives them a framework for drafting a policy to allow employees to carry.”

Pittman said White would support language strengthening privacy protections, though he offers a basic solution for staff members worried about disclosing their information: don’t carry while working, don’t end up on the district’s list provided to law enforcement.

Still, Prince’s issues don’t end with the list. He said Thursday an amendment to the bill requiring a psychological evaluation for staff who want to carry at work could be unconstitutional.

Citing a state Supreme Court ruling issued June 20, Prince said it violates Artice 2, Section 1 of the state constitution because it “constitutes an impermissible delegation of authority to a psychologist to determine fitness.”

“I don’t believe that it should be part of the process because it opens up the door for further regulations,” he said Thursday. “It leaves the discretion up to the psychologist whether they meet the fitness criteria, which isn’t defined in the bill.”

Sen. Sharif Street, a Democrat from Philadelphia, sponsored the amendment as a way to make a “troubling bill less troublesome.” It received near-unanimous support with a 49-1 vote Tuesday.

“I have great concern that while we want to keep our young people safe,” Street said, “we do not want our actions to cross into the unsafe, even more unsafe. The introduction of firearms in the school is something we all need to take seriously.”

Prince said the amendment undoubtedly makes SB 383 worse and wants it stripped from the bill entirely.

Pittman responded to the question of constitutionality, saying the amendment is “just using the same process that was already established for state police.”

Both Prince and Pittman expect changes to the proposal as it makes its way through the House — though how it will affect SBS 383’s future remains unclear.

“The House wasn’t very happy with the bill as it was drafted,” Prince said. “It’s not really clear if they will take any action at all.”

“It’s an ongoing process,” Pittman said. “Sen. White is open to changes and working with the House on those.”

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