The Senate passed a bill Wednesday that backers say will make schools safer by allowing school districts to designate employees for specialized concealed weapons training.

Senators voted 27-18 to send the bill, HB 1083, back to the House for consideration. The House can either agree with changes made by the Senate, send it to a conference committee for more work or kill the bill.

Sen. Briggs Hopson, R-Vicksburg, said he took no joy in presenting the bill.

“It’s unfortunate we live in a society where we have to look at all avenues and measures to protect our children from harm,” said Hopson, chairman of the Senate Judiciary A Committee. 

Hopson said news reports had erroneously created a narrative that the bill would allow school officials to begin carrying concealed weapons, but pointed out that already is allowed under state law. He also said that the bill would not mandate allowing staff members to carry weapons.

“You’re not putting more weapons in school than you were a week ago or a month ago,” Hopson told the chamber.

Hopson added that the bill would allow any school officials who have enhanced concealed carry permits to receive specialized training once the local school board approves.

House Bill 1083 builds on an existing law passed in the 2011 legislative session which expanded the rules on who could carry a concealed weapon. This bill allowed public defenders and citizens who passed a background check, took a firearms training course and obtained the correct permit to bring their weapon with them to many public spaces.

Mississippi has two main types of concealed carry permit laws — the standard concealed carry permit allows individuals to bring their weapon to some places, but there are strict rules on which locations are allowed.

Those with an enhanced concealed carry permit must complete a safety course offered by a certified instructor from a nationally recognized or Mississippi Department of Public Safety-approved organization that specializes in firearms training.

With the enhanced permit, people can bring their weapons with them to a long list of public spaces, including elementary and secondary school facilities, university and college campuses, courthouses (but not court rooms when a proceeding is underway), polling places, public schools, and other public places.

Sen. Kevin Blackwell, R-Southaven, successfully amended the bill to conceal the identities of individuals receiving the special training for carrying concealed weapons in schools and to require a psychological screening of those persons and require them to pass a shooting proficiency test.

The original HB 1083 prompted backlash from the Southeastern Conference and university leaders because of provisions regarding sporting events on college campuses. Once it reached the Senate a committee stripped much of the original language and replaced it with the “Mississippi School Safety Act” which would allow teachers and other public school employees to carry firearms on K-12 campuses if they took safety training courses.

Sen. Hopson said he did not foresee any objection from the SEC or other collegiate athletic conferences to the revised bill.

Rep. Andy Gipson, R-Braxton, the principal author of HB 1083, said he hasn’t read the Senate version in full, but objects to language added saying permit holders cannot bring their weapons to school athletic events. He supports the provision that would allow trained teachers and staff to carry concealed weapons, but has to take a deeper look at the bill’s language, he said.

“I support that concept, but the rub is this creation of a new exception in the bill that doesn’t exist today,” Gipson said.

Permit holders have had the ability to carry weapons on college campuses since the original bill passed in 2011, he said.

“The universities adopted policies contradicting that, so this bill, when it left the House, said any policy contradicting the law could be challenged with the attorney general, get an opinion, then give that agency a chance to fix their policy.” Gipson said. “Now it’s creating a new exception of a gun-free zone that doesn’t exist today in the law.  So I’m going to have to look at that.”

After  the vote, Hopson declined to respond to Gipson’s remarks but said the Senate version was a response to ongoing concerns about safety at sporting events.

Recently, a group of 325 university and college officials emailed a letter to the entire Senate urging legislators to vote against the bill, asking instead “to be armed only with a safe environment by keeping guns out of the classroom.”

“While this legislation would be specific to enhanced concealed carry permit holders, any classroom with a gun is a very different classroom than one without a gun,” the letter said. “A classroom with a gun ceases to be an environment where teachers or students can feel safe engaging in the sorts of stimulating and challenging discussions that are the hallmarks of higher education.”

Much of the Senate debate included mentions of a recent mass shooting in Parkland, Fla., where a gunman killed 17 people. State Sen. Barbara Blackmon, D-Canton, cited a study that found the New York Police Department has an 18 percent hit rate in shootouts.

Sen. Barbara Blackmon, D-Canton Credit: Mississippi Senate

“If these professionally trained police officers only have a 20 percent of rate of hitting their target, in an active shooter situation what would you surmise a teacher in classroom’s rate would be?,” Blackmon asked during the debate.

“This bill provides our school leaders with another way to beef up security at their campuses in a responsible manner,” Lt. Gov. Reeves said in a statement emailed by his office immediately following the vote. “Coupled with the MCOPS (providing additional policing around schools) program we passed several years ago, this is another tool to keep our children safe in the classroom.”

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Kayleigh Skinner joined the Mississippi Today team in January 2017 as an education and legislative reporter and advanced to a senior staff member in her four years with the company. Before joining Mississippi Today, Kayleigh worked at The Hechinger Report, Chalkbeat Tennessee, and The Commercial Appeal. She has appeared on MSNBC, NPR, and BBC Newsday Radio to discuss her reporting.

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Ryan L. Nave, a native of University City, Mo., served as Mississippi Today's editor-in-chief from May 2018 until April 2020. Ryan began his career with Mississippi Today February 2016 as an original member of the editorial team. He became news editor August 2016. Ryan has a bachelor’s in political science from the University of Missouri-Columbia and has worked for Illinois Times and served as news editor for the Jackson Free Press.