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MailTribune.com
  • Teacher's situation brings gun issue to fore

    Medford schools prohibit firearms on campus, but state law seems to back a local high school teacher's push to carry a concealed weapon
  • MEDFORD — A high school teacher wanting to carry a gun on campus is fueling a challenge against a Medford School District policy that prohibits possession of a weapon on school grounds.
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    • Oregon Revised Statute 166.170 on regulating fi...
      "(1) Except as expressly authorized by state statute, the authority to regulate in any matter whatsoever the sale, acquisition, transfer, ownership, possession, storage, transportation or use of fi...
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      Oregon Revised Statute 166.170 on regulating firearms
      "(1) Except as expressly authorized by state statute, the authority to regulate in any matter whatsoever the sale, acquisition, transfer, ownership, possession, storage, transportation or use of firearms or any element relating to firearms and components thereof, including ammunition, is vested solely in the Legislative Assembly.

      "(2) Except as expressly authorized by state statute, no county, city or other municipal corporation or district may enact civil or criminal ordinances, including but not limited to zoning ordinances, to regulate, restrict or prohibit the sale, acquisition, transfer, ownership, possession, storage, transportation or use of firearms or any element relating to firearms and components thereof, including ammunition. Ordinances that are contrary to this subsection are void."
  • MEDFORD — A high school teacher wanting to carry a gun on campus is fueling a challenge against a Medford School District policy that prohibits possession of a weapon on school grounds.
    Portland-based lawyer Jim Leuenberger, with backing from the Oregon Firearms Federation, said in an e-mail sent Friday to the Mail Tribune that he intends to ask a Jackson County Circuit Court judge to declare the policy "illegal and void" for holders of concealed handgun licenses.
    "There is a state statute that prohibits local governments — including school boards — from restricting possession of firearms by concealed firearm permit holders," Leuenberger said. "The state statute says any such local restrictions are void."
    Leuenberger identified the woman only as a high school teacher and said he will file the complaint using "Jane Doe" as the plaintiff.
    The issue arose when rumors swirled that a Medford teacher was carrying a weapon on campus. School officials approached the teacher and she denied the accusation, said schools attorney Tim Gerking.
    The district declined to name the teacher because of personnel privacy laws.
    The teacher was reminded of district policy and asked not to carry the firearm and she said she would comply, Gerking said. The teacher then contacted the firearms federation and Leuenberger.
    It is not clear whether the teacher ever brought a weapon onto school grounds.
    Her attorney said she has divorced her husband and obtained a restraining order against him.
    "Notwithstanding the restraining order," Leuenberger wrote, "she has reason to believe he visited her home when she was absent."
    When contacted by the Mail Tribune, the teacher asked to remain anonymous because she feared for her and her daughter's safety.
    School district officials said they believe they have the right to regulate the possession of a weapon by an employee and will fight the issue in court.
    "It's our responsibility to provide a safe learning environment for our students and a safe working environment for our employees," Gerking said. "We feel that would not be fostered by allowing folks, whether they have the authority or not, to bring weapons onto campus, in particular firearms — loaded firearms. We believe that's a recipe for potential disaster."
    Superintendent Phil Long said he did not think the teacher has brought her firearm onto school grounds since she was confronted by district officials.
    "To our knowledge we don't have any employees bringing weapons on our campus," Long said.
    Following the shootings at Virginia Tech, in addition to shootings at Columbine High School in Colorado and Thurston High School in Springfield, a desire among teachers to carry guns has risen. A university in Utah challenged a law that allows concealed weapons on public property and lost, thereby permitting guns on campus.
    In 2006, many teachers in the Utah Education Association took classes to learn how to use a gun and eventually, to obtain a concealed weapons permit.
    Earlier this year, South Carolina's legislature defeated a bill that would have allowed permit holders to carry guns onto public school campuses.
    "It's kind of developing into a nationwide problem and we're just kind of getting a taste of it," Gerking said.
    Both state and federal laws prohibit carrying a firearm on campus, according to Gerking. However, the laws come with exemptions, including one for holders of a concealed handgun license.
    "It's a loophole kind of a thing really," said School Board Chairman Mike Moran, a retired lieutenant with the Medford Police Department. "If they have a concealed weapons permit it seems to grant a privilege that I don't think the Legislature intended."
    Moran said he also had concerns the firearm could fall into the hands of a student.
    "Even if it's a totally legitimate person with a legitimate permit — can you adequately guarantee that it will not fall into the hands of a student?" Moran asked. "You can't."
    Long said he worried about what would happen if a crisis broke out on campus, and someone other than law enforcement officers was in possession of a gun.
    Crisis plans worked out with local law enforcement agencies are "predicated on the idea that if there's someone on our campus and they have a weapon, they're not supposed to be there," Long said. "The law enforcement people would act appropriately."
    Leuenberger, on behalf of his client, said he brought the state statute — ORS 166.170 — that will be the basis of his filing to the school board's attention.
    "So far the district has decided not to obey the state statute," Leuenberger said.
    The Oregon Firearms Federation has been fighting with the state and its school districts since 2001, when it lobbied against Senate Bill 508. The bill would have given school districts the authority to regulate firearms, even if the gun owner has a permit.
    Another legislative attempt to keep guns out of schools surfaced in 2005.
    "The bill never got out of committee and died the ignominious death it so richly deserved," the firearms federation said in an editorial on its Web site.
    Later that same year, the gun lobbyists battled with Portland schools, which had posted signs to discourage possession of all weapons.
    "ALL weapons are Prohibited on Portland Public School Property," said a sign posted at Chief Joseph Elementary School. "This includes weapons carried under a Concealed Weapons Permit."
    The firearms federation said Portland schools continue violating state law, but assured permit holders that it is legally acceptable to carry a weapon on school grounds.
    "Rest assured, no matter what signs are posted in any public school in Oregon, no matter what lies are told to you by bureaucrats gorging themselves at the public trough, if you are a valid CHL holder you are completely within your rights to carry your defensive firearm on the grounds of any Oregon Public School," the federation wrote.
    Kevin Starrett, federation executive director, said he's been looking for a case like the one involving the Medford schoolteacher so he could challenge schools' prohibition of firearms.
    "We were approached by the individual because she had been threatened by the school district," Starrett said. "It was just a perfect opportunity for us to get some judicial resolution to this."
    Starrett argues that armed teachers could prevent incidents like the ones at Virginia Tech and Thurston from occurring.
    "I worry about people being gunned down like dogs because they've been denied the right to have their self-defense firearm," Starrett said. "I can think of four or five incidents where armed civilians stopped school shootings."
    Moran said that just because someone receives a concealed weapons permit doesn't mean he is fit to carry a gun.
    "You can be an undiagnosed psychotic or you could be a criminal, a serial killer even, who just hasn't been caught and you can come onto our property with a concealed weapon and we can't do much about it," Moran said.
    "A concealed weapons permit is very easily obtained," added Gerking. "It's cheap and you don't have to show much. All you have to do is show that you've got the money to pay for it and you're not a felon."
    Moran said he hoped the three-month legislative session that is set to begin in January could bring some resolution to this issue.
    "This is as critical as any other issue the Legislature could address," Moran said, adding the district has contacted local lawmakers. "It's something they could address quickly and close that loophole so schools could be safer."
    It is not clear whether state law allows public schools to prohibit its employees from possessing a firearm on campus, Long said.
    "It is ironic, that if we were a private school we could regulate anyone coming on our campus with a concealed weapon," Long said. "If we were a private business we could regulate people coming on our property with a concealed weapon.
    "But where we have our most vulnerable and valuable treasures, in our public schools, there is not a willingness as this point, or clear direction from our Legislature, valuing the security of our children."
    Reach intern Bob Albrecht at 776-8791 or e-mail ralbrec1@uoregon.edu.
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