Some North Carolina schools now have locked-up AR-15s for law enforcement. Gun-safety experts are appalled

Sheriff Buddy Harwood and Lt. Coy Phillips meet with school system administration July 13 to brief them on the enhanced security procedures coming to Madison County Schools in 2022-23.
Sheriff Buddy Harwood and Lt. Coy Phillips meet with school system administration July 13 to brief them on the enhanced security procedures coming to Madison County Schools in 2022-23.

MARSHALL, N.C. – A North Carolina sheriff's office has placed locked-up AR-15 rifles on a school district's six campuses as an added security measure for the coming school year in response to the Uvalde, Texas, mass school shooting.

It's a move the North Carolina sheriff says will help law enforcement respond to possible acts of violence at the schools. But experts told USA TODAY the idea was unlikely to work and is the wrong approach to curbing gun violence.

Madison County Sheriff Buddy Harwood has promoted the idea as the nation reels from the botched law-enforcement response in Uvalde, Texas. The tragedy revealed systemic failures and poor decision-making, and responding police disregarded active-shooter trainings, according to a Texas state house report.

"Hopefully, we'll never need it, but I want my guys to be as prepared as prepared can be," Harwood said.

If an active-shooter situation occurs, the sheriff's office has stored semi-automatic weapons in locked safes at each Madison County school. The safes also contain extra magazines, ammunition and breaching tools, Harwood said.

FILE - AR-15-style rifles are on display at Burbank Ammo & Guns in Burbank, California, June 23, 2022. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong, File)
FILE - AR-15-style rifles are on display at Burbank Ammo & Guns in Burbank, California, June 23, 2022. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong, File)

"In the event we have someone barricaded in a door, we won't have to wait on the fire department," he added. "We'll have those tools to be able to breach that door if needed. I do not want to have to run back out to the car to grab an AR, because that's time lost."

But national gun-safety experts told USA TODAY they disagreed with the idea.

Allison Anderman, senior counsel and director of local policy at the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, said the response to the country's "unique epidemic of gun violence" is "horrific."

"Where there are more guns, there is more gun violence," Anderman said.

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Efforts to bring more weapons into schools for gun-violence prevention distracts from the real issue, according to Anderman.

"We need to make it much harder for people who are intent on doing harm and committing violence to access guns in the first place," she said.

Anderman said students in the district are "much more likely" to be killed by guns from acts of domestic violence, interpersonal community violence, suicide or accidental shootings.

"Those are the real risks that guns pose to students on a daily basis," she said. "If they want to make their students safer, they should be advocating for the solutions that we know work, like expanded background checks, extreme-risk protection order laws, waiting periods, safe storage, etc."

While the optics of school resource officers potentially handling AR-15s in schools may be discomforting to some, Harwood said he feels it's a necessary response.

"I hate that we've come to a place in our nation where I've got to put a safe in our schools and lock that safe up for my deputies to be able to acquire an AR-15," Harwood said. He added that the school resource officers have trained with instructors from Asheville-Buncombe Technical Community College.

"We can shut it off and say it won't happen in Madison County, but we never know," Harwood said. "I want the parents of Madison County to know we're going to take every measure necessary to ensure our kids are safe in this school system."

As part of the sheriff’s office’s Safe School Initiative, Harwood told USA TODAY, there are protocols and guidelines in place to prevent anyone from accessing the safe and guns other than school resource officers who have undergone hours of weapons and tactical training.

The heavy-duty safes, which will be under 24-hour monitoring, are stored in undisclosed locations inaccessible to students, and school employees have “very limited” access, according to Harwood.

“These safes are not easily manipulated and will not be able to be moved,” Harwood said in an email. “Only Madison County Sheriff’s Office deputies will have the password to access the contents.”

The safe’s contents, which will include supplies for providing lifesaving care for anyone injured, won’t be left inside for extended periods when students and faculty members are not present, he said.

Andy Pelosi, co-founder and executive director of the Campaign to Keep Guns off Campus, told USA TODAY that he doesn't think adding the high-powered firearms to campuses would make a difference in an active-shooter situation.

"We saw the firepower that responding law enforcement had in Uvalde, and they still didn't breach the door for over over an hour," Pelosi said.

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Both he and Anderman expressed concerns that a person other than a deputy or school resource officer would gain access to the locked safe.

Pelosi said schools should plan for worst-case scenarios, but that the focus of gun violence prevention should be shifted to how shooters are accessing the weapons.

"Part of this discussion has to be, 'where are the young people doing these acts getting their weapons?''' he said. "We should be banning military-style assault weapons and high-capacity magazines."

There has not been an assault-weapons ban since the previous federal 10-year ban on the rifles expired in 2004, Pelosi noted. The House of Representatives recently passed a firearms ban that is expected to fail in the Senate.

Adding semi-automatic weapons is just one part of the Madison County Schools' enhanced security measures.

Assigning student resource officers, social workers and counselors to each school; adding a panic-button system to every building; and having a school district safety liaison are among Madison County's other safety initiatives, according to Superintendent Will Hoffman.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY NETWORK: Some NC schools add locked-up AR-15s to prepare for shooters