By Blake Belden, Capital News Service
Gov. Bob McDonnell is urging state legislators to approve recommendations from his School and Campus Safety Task Force that would increase sentences for illegally buying guns, require mandatory lockdown drills at schools and establish more comprehensive suicide prevention programs, among other suggestions.
McDonnell sent the General Assembly a letter outlining initial recommendations from the panel, which the governor established in the wake of December’s school shootings in Newtown, Conn., where a gunman killed 26 people, including 20 children.
In the letter, McDonnell highlighted those recommendations he wants legislators to give the "most priority": 10 of them involve public safety (including restoring funding for school resource officers); two involve education (such as funding anti-bullying training); and three involve mental health (like expanding outpatient services).
The General Assembly has less than a month to turn these recommendations into law before the legislative session is scheduled to end on Feb. 23.
The task force is expected to send the governor another set of recommendations by June 30.
The task force also issued recommendations that require more security on the schools’ part. For instance, all schools would be required to conduct a lockdown drill within the first 20 days of the fall and spring semester.
The task force also proposed that all schools institute a more in-depth mental health program and suicide prevention activities. Another proposal suggests that teachers undergo training and certification so they can recognize and treat mental or emotional distress among students or other faculty.
In his letter to the General Assembly, McDonnell said, “I am confident that by working together we will make our schools and campuses safer and improve upon the legal and budgetary framework necessary to help our first responders, education and mental health profession protect all Virginians.”
Last month, a Fairfax County teachers union launched its own survey on guns and school safety.
The teachers' union survey asked the group's 4,265 members — who represent schools across the elementary, middle and high school levels — about the use of guns in schools, where the system could use extra security personnel, how safe schools are now and how to make them safer, among other topics.
Nearly 60 percent of the teachers who responded said they didn't want guns in schools. Suggestions varied widely, but one largely supported by educators both in Fairfax, and now at the state level, is having more trained, armed police officers, like School Resource Officers, in schools across the county, an initiative 65 percent of respondents said they would support.
Under current law, the illegal purchase or transport of firearms is a Class 1 misdemeanor punishable by up to 12 months in jail. The task force’s proposal would make this violation a Class 6 felony punishable by up to five years in jail.
The recommendations would also increase the punishment for “straw-man purchases” of firearms. That’s when someone legally buys a gun with the intent to sell it directly to someone who is ineligible to purchase a firearm. The law currently provides a maximum punishment of 10 years in jail for straw-man purchases.
The task force proposed increasing the punishment for all straw-man transactions and mandating a punishment of 10 years in jail for the ineligible person if the transaction involves more than one firearm.
For people who enter a school with a firearm or explosive device, the panel suggested that they be sentenced to up to 20 years in jail.
No proposals limit any current laws of legal gun ownership.
Patch Editor Erica R. Hendry reported for this story.
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