by Max Brantley
Asa Hutchinson has gotta be kidding.
The National Rifle Association announced that Republican Asa Hutchinson had been chosen to lead a study on school safety. It paid for the study. It ballyhooed the release of the results of that study yesterday. It is promoting the study on its website now.
Hutchinson, to no one's surprise, announced that the major finding of the study was like all initiatives from the NRA — more guns are needed, this time in schools.
But, last night, on Lawrence O'Donnell's show Hutchinson took pains to try to disassociate himself from the NRA. (Might he think, maybe, even in darkest Arkansas, that being a shill for the gun lobby isn't necessarily a political home run?)
“I’m not with the NRA nor do I represent the NRA, nor am I a spokesman for the NRA. So I’m in here just as the director of the task force that just looked at the school safety issues.”
Right. And he responded to questions aimed at whether this school report serves as a useful distraction from attention to gun regulation measures in Congress by saying he wished people would focus on the NRA-commissioned report (a study notably lacking membership from school people.)
UPDATE: Hutchinson clearly does want to put some degree of separation between himself and the most extreme edge of the gun lobby. He has a local news conference scheduled this afternoon at the Arkansas Educational Administrators headquarters. The expectation is that he will distance himself from news accounts that portrayed him yesterday as endorsing weapon carrying by school teachers. His report certainly advanced the cause of putting armed guards in schools. But arming teachers as a means of getting the guns inside without added cost is supposedly not part of his message, though he did say quite explicitly that a thoroughly trained teacher who wanted to carry a weapon was an idea worth considering. I've asked him how he feels about the advocacy by his nephew, Sen. Jeremy Hutchinson, of allowing teachers and other school staff to carry weapons. Nephew didn't introduce the bill, but he talked about it at length. And others, too, proposed the idea.
UPDATE II: I chatted with Hutchinson, who was "frustrated" by a Democrat-Gazette headline that had him endorsing armed teachers. "The story is flat wrong," he said. "I've said consistently since the whole debate began that teachers should teach and others should protect. The story line gave the opposite impression."
It IS true, though, that the options he outlined, after a trained resource officer, might include a specifically trained staff member — teacher, administrator or otherwise — who served the protective role of a resource officer, if a local school district chose to do it that way. He said he couldn't envision more than one person on a staff with such a designation because multiple people with weapons could create a problem should law enforcement have to respond to a school emergency. Coordination would be important, he said. He acknowledged the budgetary problems schools faced, including in security issues including fencing, doors, entrances and the like.
I asked him about advocacy in December by his nephew, Sen. Jeremy Hutchinson, for a law to allow school staff to carry weapons. He didn't introduce the bill and a similar idea in the House was pulled down. The legislature has approved a bill allowing church school staff to carry guns at churches that have approved guns on the premises. "I think he realized that wasn't a good idea," Asa Hutchinson said. He said he'd never supported broad arming of teachers.
I asked Hutchinson about something I've often thought about not just in school safety but in the huge sums the U.S. has spent on airport and other security since 9/11. Is there a point at which the cost outweighs the benefit. As awful as the Connecticut shooting was, does it justifying an enormous expense in greater security and armed guards? There are tens of thousands of schools in the U.S.
Hutchinson's answer: If he had to choose between two schools for a grandchild between one with a security plan and one with a plan and an armed officer, he'd choose the one with the officer.
Today, he'll emphasize the push in yesterday's report for self-assessment by schools of existing security plans.
As for his linkup with the NRA, he said it was fair to question his independence given the financing for the study. But he noted that he'd moved away from the notion of volunteer armed guards that the NRA leader Wayne Pierre had suggested when the planned study was announced. And, he also has broken with the NRA line on a current hot topic in Washington — universal background checks. From CNN:
Asa Hutchinson, the former Republican congressman who led the National Rifle Association’s school safety initiative, personally disagrees with its opposition to universal background checks, he told CNN on Tuesday.
"Yes. Absolutely. I'm open to expanding background checks," he said in response to a question on the "The Situation Room with Wolf Blitzer."
He's also open to guns in school, as he made clear at the Little Rock news conference in the company of some school officials and law officers.