Iowa Republicans’ answer to school shootings is more guns

By Ty Rushing

February 13, 2024

Iowa House Republicans’ solution to prevent more students from being shot in Iowa schools in the wake of Perry is to bring more guns into the schools, which includes arming teachers and other staff members.

“The scariest place to be in America, I believe, is in a place with ‘gun-free zone’ posted all over the place,” said Rep. Skyler Wheeler (R-Hull) during a discussion on HSB 675, which was introduced last week.

HSB 675 would allow districts, private schools, and colleges to arm staff. Armed saffers would undergo a one-time “in-person legal training, including training on qualified immunity, annual emergency medical training,” and annual communication training, all of which have to be approved by the Iowa Department of Public Safety.

The bill does not specify who would supply the firearms to school staff.

School staff issued a permit to carry by the Department of Public Safety and who are up-to-date on their training would also “be entitled to qualified immunity from criminal or civil liability for all damages incurred pursuant to the application of reasonable force at the place of employment.”

This bill would also require the Department of Public Safety to host an annual “live-scenario training” and quarterly live firearm training for school employees of educational institutions that opt-in to the program.

Two Northwest Iowa school districts—Cherokee and Spirit Lake—implemented their own plans to arm teachers, but the measures were dropped after insurance providers declined to continue to insure the districts because of the policy.

HSB 675 also requires Iowa’s 11 largest school districts to have armed security or school resource officers (SROs) in their high school buildings. The state would create a grant program that would allow districts to recoup up to $50,000 to pay for those costs, but otherwise, no additional funding is provided.

A few years ago, the Des Moines Public School District removed SROs from buildings following a movement that was started by students— and backed up by district parents—who felt SROs unfairly targeted Black and Brown students. This legislation would overrule that local decision and prevent other large districts from making similar choices if GOP lawmakers don’t agree with it.

In his “Grassley Bulletin” column last week, House Speaker Pat Grassley (R-New Hartford) expressed his support for HSB 675 and another school safety bill and said these bills are being done in response to the Jan. 4 school shooting in Perry.

“I believe these bills contain common sense solutions that will make a big impact on school safety,” Grassley said. “People choose Iowa because our state is viewed as safe. In Iowa, every parent should be able to send their kids to school and trust that they will return home safe”

Monday’s Iowa House subcommittee on HSB 675 drew mixed responses. Several representatives from rural school districts—including Cherokee and Spirit Lake—spoke primarily in favor of the bill, while some state agencies had questions about their departments’ role in the proposed legislation.

Catherine Lucas of the Iowa Department of Public Safety said the department is a “big fan” of the school resource officer component of the bill but had questions about how the armed staff provision would work.

“How is this going to work? What’s it going to look like? What are the parameters? Is it open carry, concealed carry? Is there a limitation on what kind of firearms the person is able to have,” she said.

Lucas noted Ohio has a similar program in place and it has a staff of 40 people overseeing it including 20 instructors. Iowa currently has one such instructor.

“Rolling out all this training is going to be a very significant lift on the Department of Public Safety and we just ask that if it is moving forward, that this is taken into consideration,” Lucas said.

Even the National Rifle Association (NRA) chimed in on the bill, but only because a lobbyist for the group wants the bill to make sure the identities of armed staff members are not accessible via a public records request.

Only one Iowa high school student spoke at the hearing and she was against the bill.

Hannah Hayes, a senior at Roosevelt High School in Des Moines and a member of the gun violence prevention group Students Demand Action, decried the legislation and the intent behind it. One of her concerns was granting armed staff members qualified immunity and the potential unintended consequences that could cause.

“As a student myself, I tell you that adding more guns to school is not going to make me feel safer,” Hannah said. “Making schools a war zone is not going to make me feel safer.”

Cherokee School Board President Jodi Thomas chastised the teenager after she spoke. Thomas was on the Cherokee board when the district rolled out its since rescinded policy on arming staff.

“That’s easy for you to say because you are from Des Moines,” Thomas said. “That’s easy for you to say because rural Iowa does not have the same access to fully staffed police or sheriff’s departments.”

Thomas had a mixed opinion on the bill itself. She noted the legislation was already in place for school districts to arm staff, but the issue remains getting insurance providers to not drop them over the policies.

“As a district who tried to implement a safety plan that our community and our district thought was best, we were unable to because of EMC,” Thomas said, referring to the insurance carrier that covers most of Iowa’s schools. “There is already legislation in place that allows local control for school boards to develop their own safety plans and do what is best for their community.”

The bill is on the agenda for Wednesday’s meeting of the Iowa House Public Safety Committee. Should the committee move it forward, the bill would then be eligible for debate on the Iowa House Floor.

  • Ty Rushing

    Ty Rushing is the Chief Political Correspondent for Iowa Starting Line. He is a trail-blazing veteran Iowa journalist, an Emmy-nominated filmmaker, and co-founder and president of the Iowa Association of Black Journalists. Send tips or story ideas to [email protected] and find him on social media @Rushthewriter.

CATEGORIES: EDUCATION | GUN REFORM | POLITICS

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