Gov. Doug Ducey proposed boosts to mental health services at schools, a greater law enforcement presence on school campuses and fixing some, but not all, loopholes in background checks on gun sales in response to a mass shooting a month ago in Florida.
Ducey’s plan, which he’ll need to convince the state Legislature to approve, focuses on school safety following the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland. It includes some new dollars to help pay for school psychiatrists, a program that would allow former cops to act as armed, volunteer security guards at schools, and an unspecified amount of state funding to help more schools hire school resource officers.
It also provides an opportunity to have guns seized from people deemed to be a danger to themselves or others, a legal process Democrats in Arizona have been calling for all legislative session.
But while it addresses some faults with the states criminal background check system, Democrats say Ducey’s proposal falls far too short, particularly in one area that undermines some of the governor’s other efforts: A lack of universal background checks.
Ducey wants to create a Severe Threat Order of Protection, or STOP order, by which law enforcement, family members or other individuals can petition the court to order that a person’s firearms be temporarily confiscated. Depending on the circumstance, the court would have to determine if there is clear and convincing evidence that a person is a severe threat. Those orders would be valid for 14 to 21 days, and could be extended by up to 6 months if necessary.
A person under a STOP order would be barred from possessing a firearm, punishable by up to three years and nine months in prison. Ducey’s plan, which also calls for faster updates to Arizona’s criminal background check system, also means that gun retailers would be alerted that a person with a stop order could not be sold a firearm.
But there’s nothing to stop that person from using the gun show loophole to purchase a firearm without the state’s knowledge.
That’s one of several reasons why Democrats called Ducey’s proposal “missed opportunity.”
“The governor acknowledges that there are clearly dangerous situations where violent people should not have guns. Yet he knowingly leaves a gaping loophole for these same violent people to go to a gun show and rearm,” said House Minority Leader Rebecca Rios, D-Phoenix.
Rios would not say if the governor’s plan will ultimately have their support without first seeing legislation, but that didn’t stop her and other representatives from demanding more from Ducey’s plan.
The governor has resisted using language as strong as “gun safety,” instead referring to his proposal as a school safety plan. But Rep. Randy Friese, D-Tucson, insisted there is still time for negotiations and for Democrats’ full concerns to be represented in the governor’s plan, such as a ban on bump stocks.
“This is a gun safety plan no matter what he wishes to call it,” Friese said.
Ducey spokesman Daniel Scarpinato repeatedly dodged questions about Ducey’s position on the gun show loophole, though his staff claimed that no stakeholders asked for universal background checks in meetings with the governor, save for Democrats.
As for the Democrats’ opposition, Scarpinato said that there’s much to gain from both parties supporting the governor’s agenda on school safety.
He said that the court-ordered ability to have guns seized or turned over is a policy Democrats have called for in the wake of the Parkland shooting. It even goes further than the measure sponsored by Senate Minority Leader Katie Hobbs, D-Phoenix, by allowing school administrators, teachers, social workers and behavioral and mental health specialists to petition the court for a person’s guns to be taken away.
“The governor’s top priority here is public safety, and this protects public safety and balances that with the Second Amendment rights of Arizonans,” Scarpinato said. “We think this is something that both sides can come together on. These are ideas that a lot of them, as recently as this session, have been proposed by Democratic lawmakers. And we think this is a package that really will make a difference for Arizona schools.”
Democrats aren’t the only ones who aren’t buying into Ducey’s plan. Student leaders with the March For Our Lives Movement also said Ducey’s plan falls short of what’s necessary to truly address school shootings, but also gun violence at large.
“The time has come to stop the mass killings, not confront that problem with half-hearted measures designed to offer window dressing to the issue and appease the National Rifle Association’s and Citizens Defense League’s corrupting influence on the process,” said Jordan Harb, a junior at Mountain View High School in Mesa.
As for Republicans, legislators such as Senate President Steve Yarbrough, R-Chandler, have expressed concern with the potential cost of measures that were floated around as possible additions to Ducey’s proposal. The governor’s plan offers a minimal hit to the General Fund — $2 million for school psychiatrists, $1.8 million for modernizing the criminal background database, and an undetermined amount to help pay for more school resource officers.
That spending amount may be frugal enough for some Republicans, but it’s another area that Democrats may criticize as lacking. Without concrete figures on the governor’s financial commitment to hiring more SROs, it’s impossible to report how many schools would be able to afford hiring an officer.
It’s also unclear how many schools would benefit from increased mental health funding in schools, given that those dollars — $2 million from the General Fund and a $6 million federal match — would be available only to schools serving students who qualify for Medicaid or KidsCare.
Schools would have two options for utilizing those dollars. Some could contract with the Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System, or AHCCCS, to provide psychiatrists at schools on a limited basis for those students in families that fall below 200 percent of the federal poverty level.
For schools that want to hire a full time psychiatrist, a part of that salary could be covered by AHCCCS as long as 50 percent of students in the school are covered by AHCCCS or KidsCare.
For instance, if 80 percent of students a school psychiatrist treats qualify for AHCCCS, then AHCCCS will pay for 80 percent of that staffers salary, freeing up school dollars at the local level, according to Dawn Wallace, the governor’s education policy advisor.
Gubernatorial staff emphasized that the plan is not a one-size-fits-all solution, and that it provides schools with options. Ducey legislative director Gretchen Martinez said schools that don’t qualify for AHCCCS-funded behavioral and mental health services could use new district additional assistance funding.
That money is meant to restore previous cuts to district additional assistance under the Ducey administration.
In addition to more mental health resources, Ducey also proposes increasing law enforcement’s presence on school campuses — basic administrative tasks , like filling out paperwork, could be completed by cops on school grounds, in an effort to deter violence simply through a police officer’s presence.
A voluntary program would also allow former peace officers to carry guns on campus while acting as security, an effort meant to supplement or replace the role of school resource officers. Teachers and administrators, even those who are ex-law enforcement, would not be eligible for the program, continuing Ducey’s opposition to arming school officials.
Ducey’s staff said those two ideas came from talks with school officials, who asked for a greater amount of law enforcement on campus. But those proposals aren’t pleasing to students, who’ve been critical of calls for more guns in schools.
“The proposal to increase police presence at schools will only add to stress children live under every day, especially in schools and communities where children of color already feel under siege by the police,” Harb said.
Ducey’s plan also calls for a confidential, statewide tip line for reporting possibly dangerous behavior, and for the Department of Public Safety to work with schools on creating universal best practices for schools to better prepare for a shooter.
It’s unclear when Ducey’s ideas will become a bill. Ducey’s staff said they’re in active negotiations with legislative leaders over key aspects, like how much funding will be provided to hire more school resource officers.
But as of Monday afternoon, leaders like Yarbrough downplayed the extent of those negotiations. The Senate president still needed to read the governor’s full proposal before he could comment.
As they did a week ago, students announced they’ll come to the Capitol on Wednesday and are again seeking a meeting with Ducey. They were denied a sit down with the governor on March 14.
Katie Campbell contributed to this report.