TOPEKA — Sen. John Doll voted with a heavy heart for a Kansas Senate bill requiring the state Board of Education to approve gun-safety curriculum standards tied to a National Rifle Association initiative and hunter education program of the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks.
He cherished memories of being taught to shoot by his father, and was convinced firearm safety should be part of parent-child bonding. He pointed with sorrow to statistics collected over the years on school shootings in the United States. One account listed 366 since the massacre at Columbine High School in Colorado on April 20, 1999. This national registry of horror included the death of 26 people in Connecticut at Sandy Hook Elementary School on Dec. 14, 2012.
There were 42 U.S. school shootings in 2021 and 46 last year, more than any year since Columbine.
“I like to read,” said Doll, a Garden City Republican. “One of the toughest books I’ve ever had to read was ‘Sandy Hook.’ I had to put it down and cry about three times. Just killed me.”
Doll said he was apprehensive Senate Bill 116 — approved 30-8 by the Senate and forwarded to the House — would increase political pressure on local school boards to offer prescribed instruction on gun safety and contribute to blaming educators for tragedies in public schools involving gun violence.
“What I’m afraid is going to happen, if school shootings continue to happen, is we’re going to pin it on schools,” Doll said.
Eddie Eagle flies high
Sen. Chase Blasi, the Wichita Republican carrying his first bill on the Senate floor Thursday, said he was taught to shoot by his dad, but many Kansas children didn’t have an equivalent opportunity to learn about discharging firearms or what to do with an unsecured weapon. He said that reality affirmed need for standardized Kansas curriculum standards on gun safety argued for reliance on established programs sponsored by the NRA and the state wildlife agency.
Under the bill, the state Board of Education would be directed to adopt a curriculum guidelines — constitutional questions about such a mandate weren’t resolved — and local school boards would be left to decide whether to offer the curriculum to students. The NRA’s “Eddie Eagle” cartoon version of gun safety instruction would be available to K-8 students, while the state park training regime could be relied upon by students in grades 6-12. At least two organizations advocating for the Senate bill said it was an opportunity to market the culture of firearms or hunting to a new generation.
“Local school districts may provide these programs,” Blasi said. “This legislation does not require local school districts to provide the safety education courses.”
The Legislature adopted a comparable bill in 2021 vetoed by Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly. She objected to the Legislature trampling curriculum authority held by the state Board of Education under the Kansas Constitution. She characterized as “legislative overreach” past actions by the House and Senate to implement a gun-safety curriculum.
Sen. Cindy Holscher, an Overland Park Democrat, had three amendments to the Senate gun bill blocked by colleagues. Her first would have declared in state law no one delivering firearm instruction could bring a gun into a school. Blasi said addition of that language was unnecessary, and it was defeated 12-25.
“We don’t want any confusion for firearms instructors affiliated with this program to think because of this they’re allowed to bring guns in,” Holscher said.
Another of Holscher’s amendments would create crimes for unsafe storage of firearms, but it was ruled out of order by the Senate. Her final amendment, rejected on an unrecorded vote, would have prohibited classroom materials used in the gun-safety curriculum to link to information about the National Rifle Association, including the organization’s plea to join, donate or learn about political positions and candidate endorsements by the NRA.
“Is this really about safety or about cultivating a new market?” Holscher said.
The gold bullet?
Sen. Mike Thompson, R-Shawnee, said a “clean” bill should be approved by the Senate without amendments, arguing tweaks could potentially weaken the legislation. He spoke against Holscher’s attempt to derail the NRA’s “gold standard” program on firearm safety instruction.
“This is the gold standard,” Thompson said. “Why would we not want this in our schools? This is a good program. I stand behind the bill as written.”
Holscher said claims about excellence of the NRA curriculum were misleading. She said a 2004 study of 2,000 children who completed the NRA program showed two-thirds of those tested picked up a gun, one-third pulled the trigger and one child who informed a teacher about finding a gun was teased by peers.
The NRA trademarked Eddie Eagle program was designed to convince students encountering an unattended gun to stop, don’t touch, run away and tell an adult. The NRA advertised Eddie Eagle as suitable for pre-K through fourth grades, but the Kansas bill envisioned Eddie Eagle working for students through the 8th grade.
Senate Democratic Leader Dinah Sykes, D-Lenexa, offered an amendment to require parents receive notice from the school of gun safety instruction four months in advance. She also wanted parents to affirm through an opt-in process they wanted their children undergoing training on firearm safety at school. A similar opt-in approach was approved by the Legislature for participation in national opinion surveys of students, she said.
Her notification amendment went down 8-27 after Senate President Ty Masterson, R-Andover, said Sykes’ proposal singled out a particular curriculum subject for discrimination.
Sen. Usha Reddi, a Democrat from Manhattan, voted against the bill. She said Kansas was among states that didn’t require purchasers of firearms to complete a gun safety course. Kansas’ “constitutional carry” law enabled adults to carry concealed weapons without taking a gun education course.
“Schools and children are not the problem here,” Reddi said. “They’re not the ones who need to be trained. We live in a state that doesn’t require adults who are purchasing weapons to be trained.”