Wednesday, February 21, 2024

Bills Requiring Schools to Send Parents Gun Safety Notices Clear Virginia House, Senate

Abby Zwerner, a teacher from Richneck Elementary School, is honored by Virginia Senators on April 12, 2023. (Nathaniel Cline/Virginia Mercury)

RICHMOND — The Virginia Senate on Tuesday passed a bill requiring school boards to notify gun-owning parents annually of their responsibility to safely store firearms to keep them away from their children.

Last year, interest in gun violence prevention measures increased after a then-six-year-old student brought a firearm from home to his Newport News elementary school and shot his teacher. The teacher, Abigail Zwerner, was seriously injured but survived.

The legislation, which received support from the House in a 54-45 vote last week, is on track to reach Gov. Glenn Youngkin, whose spokesman Christian Martinez said the governor will review any legislation that comes to his desk. In January, however, Youngkin said “Virginia’s gun laws are already among the toughest in the nation,” making it tough to predict if he will veto this legislation, or other gun control laws introduced by Democrats.

“Unsecured firearms present a grave threat to both children and those around them,” said the bill’s patron Sen. Stella Pekarsky, D-Fairfax,  during the 23-16 floor vote on Tuesday. “This bill is not meant to restrict or prevent a family’s ability to defend themselves through lawful gun ownership. It simply empowers parents with the knowledge they need to safely secure firearms in the home and encourage safety conversations with their children.”

If passed, school boards would be required to create a policy notifying parents each year by email and text of their “legal responsibility to safely store any firearm present in the household.” The school board notices would also need to remind parents of the risks associated with improperly stored firearms, statistics relating to firearm-related accidents, injuries and death among youth, and other safety tips and strategies, according to the legislation.

Finally, the bills dictate that the schools’ emails and text messages must be displayed in multiple languages such as English and Spanish on divisions’ websites, and be sent within 30 calendar days of each new school year.

Del. Mike Cherry, R-Colonial Heights, who opposed the companion House bill put forward by Del. Laura Cohen, D-Fairfax, questioned if all schools have the capability to send text messages during a House Education subcommittee meeting. He made an amendment request to relax the requirement for text messages, but it failed after the committee, including Del. Alex Askew, D-Virginia Beach, questioned if changing the language would create a loophole for schools not to follow the proposed law.

Issues with legislation

Opponents of the legislation, primarily conservative groups, said the bills could create a negative notion about owning a firearm and scare parents. But supporters said the legislation is simply a helpful reminder.

During a recent House Education Subcommittee hearing, representatives from the Virginia Citizens Defense League, which supports the rights of gun owners, said they could have supported the legislation, but decided not to because the bill spoke negatively of guns and was too long.

“This bill goes much further and demonizes firearms instead of actually promoting education on safety and suicide awareness,” said Patricia Webb, a League representative. The group’s president Philip Van Cleave, agreed.

“With all this information, who’s going to read it?” Van Cleave asked. “If you make something too long, nobody’s going to read all that. It’s better to focus on just the key part about what the law is, maybe how to recognize if your child is having a crisis, but if you make it too long, nobody’s going to read it anyhow.”

On Jan. 31, the House passed the legislation 54-45, with some Republicans joining Democrats in advancing the bill. There were, however, some Republican dissenters, including Del. Tim Griffin, R-Bedford.

“When it comes to children and parents and knowing what is best for them, the parents back at home know what is best for our children, not Richmond politicians,” Griffin said. He added that Virginians don’t need school boards sending home letters and text messages that are “meant to scare and threaten them” into abiding by the law. “They’re already abiding by the law,” he said.

Cohen, who said she is a gun owner, argued that the bill simply reminds parents that it’s their legal responsibility to store their firearms when children are present.

“If we really, in a very bipartisan way, would like to address some of the issues that we have in our schools and our society — mass shootings, the fear that people have to go to the mall, to synagogue, to church — this is how we start,” Cohen continued, “by remembering that we have an obligation to our children in our homes” to ensure loaded guns don’t land in minors’ hands.

Firearm violence prevention in schools

Some public schools have already taken measures to address violent threats to students and staff by reminding parents of the law and by adding weapons detectors to school buildings.

Between the 2016-20 school years, Virginia recorded on average 1,910 cases involving weapons out of the roughly 2,000 annual violent offenses committed by students in public schools, special education and alternative centers, according to data from the Virginia Department of Education.

Offenses dropped during the pandemic, when schools were closed for in-person instruction. During the 2020-21 school year, 132 of the 135 violent student offenses recorded involved weapons.

Lawmakers are also proposing other firearm legislation related to schools this session.

Legislation prohibiting gun sellers from being located within 1.5 miles of an elementary or middle school and preventing them from selling, trading or transferring firearms near schools is being considered by the House.

Lawmakers are also debating legislation directing the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission to study the effects of gun violence on communities.

A bill authorizing certain employees to have a gun at school failed in the House.

Virginia Mercury is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Virginia Mercury maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sarah Vogelsong for questions: info@virginiamercury.com. Follow Virginia Mercury on Facebook and Twitter.

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