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Florida school uses rifles to protect against gun violence

9News.com.au logo 9News.com.au 13/04/2019 Charles Croucher

A long, tree-lined driveway leads to the entrance to the Manatee School of the Arts on the outskirts of Tampa, Florida.

From a distance it looks picturesque; bright blocks spell out the school's name and there’s no sign of the metal detectors that have become educational infrastructure throughout the USA.

Get a little closer though and there’s the jarring sight of a man in full body armour brandishing a semi-automatic rifle.

a group of people standing in front of a building: Manatee School of the Arts in Florida has become the first to equip guardians with semi-automatic weapons to protect against gun violence © 9news Manatee School of the Arts in Florida has become the first to equip guardians with semi-automatic weapons to protect against gun violence

“Rifles are normal,” school principal Dr Bill Jones says.

“Walk through any airport, any train station, you know machine guns are normal.”

But rifles are far less normal in schools, Manatee is the first to equip guardians with semi-automatics after the state of Florida mandated that all schools must have armed guards on campus last year.

“We’re not looking for a fair fight,” the principal said.

“This is not a sporting event, we’re not playing rugby. This is life or death.

“If somebody walks in with a handgun – great – because we have overwhelming firepower and we want to stop that right now.”

Combat veterans have been armed with combat weapons © 9news Combat veterans have been armed with combat weapons

It’s a scenario parents are forced to worry about every day, particularly in Florida.

The Pulse nightclub attack in the state left 49 dead in 2016, 2700 more people were killed in 2017.

Then on Valentine’s Day last year a gunman killed 17 students at the Stoneman-Douglas High School ensuring that school would join Columbine, Sandy Hook and Virginia Tech as names synonymous with sadness.

Dr Jones is determined Manatee will not join that list.

“2100 kids are going to walk in the door – tell me what I am going to do right now to make them safer,” he said.

After consultation with local law enforcement the school board settled on arming combat veterans with combat weapons.

a group of people standing in a room: After a spate of shootings in Florida, laws have changed in the state © 9news After a spate of shootings in Florida, laws have changed in the state

“Don’t kid yourself, someone walks onto this campus with an AR15, you’re in a war,” he said.

The school is surrounded by bulletproof glass – a panel sits framed on Dr Jones’ wall with four bullets still lodged in the pane.

“It’s a little outside the box,” local police chief Scott Tyler said, while admitting he supports the move.

“There may be some other schools and other campuses where it’s not such a good approach.”

While Australia and, more recently, New Zealand have responded to mass-shootings by reducing firepower, Dr Jones says the same approach wouldn’t work in the US.

“You guys didn’t have a second amendment,” he said.

a man standing in front of a building: School principal Dr Bill Jones says armed guards in schools is the right move to protect students © 9news School principal Dr Bill Jones says armed guards in schools is the right move to protect students

“Gun control is a second amendment right here in the US. In Australia, no offense, I didn’t understand some of the confiscation.”

And parents seem to agree.

“I'm glad to see my son and I take a lot of comfort that my son is safe,” parent Lisa Chittarow said.

Critics say it normalises semi-automatic rifles for students as young as 12, but Dr Jones is unapologetic.

“Is it possible we’re wrong? Of course it is,” he said.

“But I don’t think we are. I think we’re the ones that are right on target.”

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