Semi-automatic AR-15s are the latest weapon at the disposal of campus police officers in Compton, Calif., where school officials say the need to protect lives trumps critics’ claims of “deeply disturbing” militarization.
The K-12 Compton Unified School District approved a plan last month to allow specially-trained officers to keep the high-powered assault rifles in the trunks of their cars for use during emergencies. District spokesman Ron Suazo confirmed the new policy, referring FoxNews.com to a statement from Compton School Police Chief William Wu.
“Our objective is quite simple — we want to save lives,” Wu said. “These rifles give us greater flexibility in dealing with a person with bad intent who comes onto any of our campuses.”
Wu and district officials noted that eight other California communities and school districts already use the weapons, including Los Angeles, Santa Ana, Baldwin Park and Fontana. They’ve also been approved for use or have been purchased by other districts in Topeka, Kan., Gainesville, Fla., and Granite, Utah.
“The goal — as always — is ensuring safety and, as a department and as a school district, we are committed to achieving that goal,” Wu’s statement continued.
Scott Mesa, police chief of the nearby Fontana Unified School District, said 2014-15 will be the second school year campus officers will have access to the rifles. He said he's aware of two incidents last year during which they came into play, but were never pointed at any suspects. Both involved unfounded reports of a man on a campus with a gun, he said.
"We hope we never have to use them, but it’s one of those tools in place in case we do," Mesa told FoxNews.com. "It’s in the event of an emergency. It’s a tool of police work.”
Most gun policy scholars contacted by FoxNews.com said they had little problem with the policy, citing notorious school mass shootings in Columbine, Colo., and Newtown, Mass., and the specialized training and artillery needed to respond during such incidents.
“I don’t see any problem with it, I don’t see why it’s bothersome to people,” said Prof. James Jacobs of New York University’s School of Law. “They’re not being displayed or brandished unless they’re needed. Would it be better if they had shotguns?”
Jacobs is the author of “Can Gun Control Work?” and said the weapons are indeed prudent in today’s environment, granted that they not be on display or brandished by officers while patrolling school hallways.
“Unfortunately, we live in a world where [school shootings] happen and police need to be prepared for all eventualities,” Jacobs told FoxNews.com. “We’re talking about long guns in the car in the event that they become needed.”
Ladd Everitt, a spokesman for the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, strongly disagreed, characterizing the growing trend as “deeply disturbing” and symptomatic of how U.S. lawmakers have failed students.
“There is no other free nation in the world that would even consider this,” Everitt told FoxNews.com. “Why? Because they have tough gun laws on the books that make it impossible for clearly deranged individuals like James Holmes and Jared Loughner to legally (or easily) acquire firearms — and astronomically lower rates of gun death as a result.”
Francisco Orozco, a former student of the district and founder of the Compton Democratic Club, said the policy overly-militarizes school grounds, particularly when multiple accusations of racial profiling and excessive force by campus police officers exist.
“We feel it’s too much,” Orozco told FoxNews.com. “And the idea that there’s an imminent terror attack or mass shooting looming is totally unfounded. The school police are already capable of handling any situation without these weapons.”
Orozco, 23, graduated from the 26,000-student district in 2010 and has five relatives still learning from its educators. He fears it sends the wrong message to students, perhaps one that shows a "great lack of trust" on behalf of district officials and campus police, as if they have to heavily arm themselves for the country's next mass school shooting.
“More weapons on campus are always a potential threat,” Orozco said. “It creates a false sense of security; more weapons does not always equal more safety.”
John Malcolm, senior legal fellow at The Heritage Foundation, a Washington-based think tank, said he wouldn’t be troubled if his child’s school district began implementing the weapons into its security program. He also noted that some districts in states like Texas, Ohio and South Dakota allow for teachers to carry concealed weapons.
“The school officials and community members are tasked with keeping folks safe and they know their communities and threats better than anyone,” Malcolm told FoxNews.com. “I am certainly not going to second-guess a school official who believes these measures are prudent to take."
Follow Joshua Rhett Miller on Twitter @joshuarhett.