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Police in Utah school district armed with rifles

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Police officers tasked with keeping students safe in one of Utah's largest school districts have been given a tool they think could save lives if a gunman attacks AR15 and M16 rifles.

The Granite School District has acquired the weapons from a U.S. Department of Defense program that gives surplus equipment to police agencies. Of the 62 agencies in Utah that get equipment from the program, Granite is the only one whose primary responsibility is schools, The Salt Lake Tribune reports.

The school district's police officers don't keep the rifles with them at all times, said Randy Johnson, chief of the district's police department. They are locked in a rack inside their cars because it is simply not practical to carry with them at all times. The idea is that they would quickly grab then if there is a threat.

Twelve officers have AR15s, and Johnson and two sergeants have M16 rifles.

The intent is not to kill, but they feel the weapons put them in a better position should somebody enter the school and open fire, Johnson said.

"We're out to stop people from what they're doing," he told the Tribune.

The department already had the M16s when Johnson took over in 2006, and he has since acquired the AR15s while getting rid of shotguns.

"If we have to use that weapon, I wanted it to be a surgeon's scalpel and not like a sledgehammer," Johnson said, in comparing rifles to shotguns.

Officers have taken out the weapons on occasions when there was a reported threat at a school, but no one has fired a rifle at a suspect since Johnson took over as chief eight years ago, he said.

It's unknown how many other school districts in the country have received rifles from the initiative known as the Department of Defense Excess Property Program, or 1033 Program. Police department can also get surplus gear that includes everything from blankets to armored vehicles and aircraft.

A school district in California received a van; Indiana University six rifles; and Ohio State University a mine-resistant ambush-protected vehicle.

The weapons are technically on loan, but police departments can keep them so long as they are maintained and not sold or given away.

In the wake of school shootings in places like Virginia Tech University and Sandy Hook Elementary in Connecticut, police around the country are trying to acquire more high-powered weapons to be ready to face off against gunmen.

The Granite School District in Utah has 67,000 students in 87 schools in the Salt Lake City area.

Though students and parents across the country are on high alert because of the recent school shootings, the likelihood of any school having a shooting is once in every 13,870 years, David Perrodin, a University of Wisconsin-Madison doctoral researcher on school security, told the Tribune.

Perrodin said having the rifles puts the Utah school district in position to react to a gunmen with equally high-powered weaponry, but he said a rifle may not do much good if the officer isn't carrying it with him all the time.

One quarter of school shootings end within five minutes, Perrodin said, citing his research. Nearly all end within 15 minutes.

"If you're going to have an M-16, my position would be you have it with you at all times, just like you have a sidearm at all times," Perrodin said.

But Johnson said he doesn't think it would be a good idea for his officer to carry the rifles with them everywhere.

"You use them when you need them, and then you put them away," Johnson said.

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Information from: The Salt Lake Tribune, www.sltrib.com

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