Gov. Bryant’s stance on guns in school is a reversal from his legislator days

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Rogelio V. Solis, AP

Gov. Phil Bryant outlines his legislative priorities during the State of the State address in January,

Gov. Phil Bryant last week spoke out in support of allowing employees to carry guns on school campuses — but he hasn’t always believed that was a good idea.

As a legislator representing Rankin County in the early 1990s, then-state Rep. Bryant co-authored a bill that would have stiffened penalties for anyone carrying a gun on school grounds.

“It shall be unlawful for any person to carry a concealed pistol or revolver on any public school premises or at any public school or school district sponsored activity regardless of the possession of a permit to carry a weapon pursuant to the provisions of this section,” states the text of House Bill 319, filed during the 1992 regular legislative session.

The 11-page bill would have added harsher penalties to an existing state law governing penalties for the use of deadly weapons. The 1992 legislation would have imposed a one-year prison sentence, $1,000 or both “for any person convicted under this section if the offense occurred on the premise of any public school campus or any activity sponsored by public school or the entire school district.”

Ten lawmakers signed on as sponsors of the bill, which died in a House committee.

Bryant told Mississippi Today in an interview Thursday that the proposed legislation sought to protect schools from people intent on doing harm.

“I’d have to go back and look at the bill, but certainly I would say if someone brings a weapon on campus with the intent to harm someone, certainly we want to stop that – if he’s doing something wrong,” Bryant told Mississippi Today. “I think if you look back at that law, it was to stop someone who may be doing something wrong.”

But his bill included no provision for intent. Instead, it would have included stricter penalties for anyone – including concealed carry permit holders – carrying a weapon on a public school campus.

The governor’s office did not respond to a request for clarification about what the governor said and what was stated in the bill.

A shooting at a high school in Parkland, Fla., where 17 people were murdered, reignited national conversations about school safety and gun rights across the nation and in Mississippi.

A Senate committee on Tuesday passed a bill allowing teachers to be trained to carry guns on school campuses, which the sponsor, Sen. Briggs Hopson, R-Vicksburg, called “another tool in the toolbox to help ensure our children, teachers, and staff members are safe.”

Senate bill allows schools to arm teachers; teachers group condemns measure

State law enforcement organizations back the Senate proposal. Bryant, a former Hinds County Sheriff’s deputy, is heavily in favor of the Senate bill.

Mississippi Sheriffs Association

Clarke County Sheriff Todd Kemp

“I’m a believer that we need a badge and a gun protecting our children, but training is the key,” said Todd Kemp, president of the Mississippi Sheriff’s Association and sheriff of Clarke County. “My greatest fear is a teacher getting in an altercation with a student and the gun is taken from them. Obviously training is real important.”

Bryant, who spoke in favor of arming teachers last Monday with President Donald Trump at the White House, posted a series of tweets supporting the idea of arming some teachers and administrations.

“If we can find school personnel that of their own volition can go through the training and hopefully have some kind of background in military or law enforcement, I think it’s important for them to have the ability to protect themselves by use of a weapon,” Bryant told Mississippi Today on Thursday.

Bryant tweeted about the issue several times this week, including a tweet: “Whether to engage in this process would be left totally up to school leadership. This is not a one-size-fits-all solution. It allows schools the flexibility to make the decision they deem best to ensure student safety.”

At the White House session with governors, Bryant spoke about Mississippi’s own experience with school shootings in 1997 when a 16-year-old killed two students and injured seven others at Pearl High School; before the school rampage began, the shooter also killed his own mother.

“A vice principal, who was an Army Reserve officer, went to his vehicle, retrieved his 1911 .45, and stopped that shooter before he could kill other children in Pearl, Mississippi,” Bryant said, according to a  report in The Washington Post. “When I heard you speak of your idea, that was the concept I believed in. Find that Army Reserve vice principal, give him the training he necessarily needs, arm him, and stop this madness.’ ”

That vice-principal, Joel Myrick, said in a recent New York Times story that although he believes putting armed guards in schools is a good idea, he thinks proposals to arm teachers is misguided.

The legislation Bryant co-sponsored in 1992 made no exceptions for trained, experienced guards or school staff. Since then, Bryant has remained steadfast in his support for gun rights and opposition to gun control.

In December 2012, after a gunman killed 20 children and six adults in Newtown, Conn., Bryant’s office issued a statement that said: “The governor and first lady are praying for the victims of the Connecticut shootings, and Gov. Bryant is opposed to any limitation of the right to arms as protected by the Constitution of the United States of America.”

The Newtown shooting prompted federal officials, including then-President Barack Obama, to discuss tightening access to guns, including military-style semiautomatic weapons such as the AR-15 used by the killer, Adam Lanza.

At the time, Bryant said he supported enforcing existing laws requiring background checks, but said the government should not target specific styles of guns, telling the Clarion-Ledger then that criminals would get assault weapons anyway.

“When it’s for self-protection, you need as much firepower as needed to protect your family,” Bryant told the Clarion-Ledger in early 2013.

Since he became governor, Bryant has maintained close political affiliations with the National Rifle Association, strongly supporting legislation pushed by the national gun lobby.

A 2016 bill called the Church Protection Act was backed by the NRA. The “guns in churches” narrative served as a cover for an expansion of state law allowing open carry in Mississippi. Bryant signed the bill into law with a photo of his handgun placed on a Bible.

Bryant has received just under $10,000 in political contributions from the NRA and has earned several endorsements and public relations pushes. He was endorsed by the organization in the 2011 and 2015 gubernatorial campaigns, and he has received several NRA awards, including the NRA “Defender of Freedom” award.

“Under Governor Bryant’s leadership, Mississippi has significantly reformed its laws to affirm our Second Amendment freedoms by giving law-abiding citizens more legal personal protection options with less government interference,” the NRA wrote in a 2015 press release endorsing his candidacy for governor.

The Mississippi Senate has a Wednesday deadline to vote on the legislation allowing guns in schools.