January 22, 2013

Bill would allow schools to arm teachers

Sen. David Burns, R-Whiting, proposes bill that would require those who carry guns in school to complete a firearms training course and a psychological exam

By Tom Bell tbell@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

Sen. David Burns, a Washington County Republican and a retired Maine State Police trooper, believes schools are "soft targets" for crazed gunmen because they know none of the teachers are armed.

So Burns has submitted a bill that would give school districts the authority to allow teachers and other school employees to carry concealed weapons on campus.

"This is not a mandate for anybody," said Burns, who lives in Whiting. "This is an option for school systems to consider as they look at the overall responsibility and problems of protecting children and staff in school environments."

The bill would require those who carry guns in school to complete a firearms training course and a psychological exam. Parents would be notified that a person at their child's school is carrying a concealed weapon, but the identity of the person would be kept confidential, Burns said.

The bill would also give school districts the authority to hire armed security guards. Currently, state law only allows police officers to carry guns in schools.

The proposal has prompted some unexpected reactions.

Tom Franklin, president of Maine Citizens Against Handgun Violence, which plans to push for gun control legislation, said his group is focused on making schools safer and is "entirely open" all ideas, including arming teachers.

However, David Trahan, executive director of the Sportsman's Alliance of Maine, a fierce advocate of gun rights, said he's reluctant to support the bill. He said teachers should focus on teaching, and the only people who should carry guns in school are those whose sole job is to provide security.

Nicole Case, who lives in Whiting and teaches English at Machias Memorial High School, said she worries that a distracted teacher could misplace a weapon, and that a child could grab it.

She noted that a doctor last month left a loaded 9 mm gun in a bathroom at the L.L. Bean store in Freeport. And a security guard at a charter school in Lapeer, Mich., left a gun in a school restroom on Jan. 14.

Case has three school-age children. If her school district allowed some teachers to carry guns, she said, she'd probably take her children out of school.

"I would be horrified," she said.

An armed teacher would confuse police officers responding to reports of a shooting at a school, said Lois Kilby-Chesley, president of the Maine Teachers Association.

If police see two armed people in the school, for instance, they might shoot at both of them, not knowing which person was the dangerous one, she said.

"How do they know who's the good guy and who's the bad guy?" she asked.

Jamie Caron, chairman of the Portland School Board, did not dismiss the idea of arming teachers, suggesting that the idea could be part of a more comprehensive approach to creating safer schools.

A bigger priority for Portland, he said, is to make sure that every classroom has a telephone and is connected to an intercom system. Many classrooms currently don't, he said.

Also, as the city considers rebuilding several elementary schools, it needs to make security improvements, such as ensuring that school receptionists can see people trying to enter the building, he said.

"It's an over-simplification to think we should just arm the teachers and we solve the problem," he said.

Portland Police Chief Mike Sauschuck is strongly opposed to arming teachers.

"These are full-time professional educators, and they, in the best-case scenario, have very limited training. That is a poor way to do business," he said.

Burns said his bill calls for teachers to have the same level of weapons training as police officers. He said he has been considering the bill for about a year and half, ever since a police officer asked him to consider similar legislation.

He decided to submit the bill in response to the shooting last month at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn, in which 20 children and six educators were shot to death by a heavily armed gunman who took his own life.

Maine lawmakers have since submitted dozens of bill aimed at curbing gun violence, such as banning high capacity magazines and requiring background checks for private gun sales.

Burns is a strong supporter of gun rights, and his voting record has won him the endorsement of the National Rifle Association.

People who are so mentally disturbed that they shoot children are unlikely to respect any of the proposed gun regulations, he said.

Still, he said, he doesn't see his bill as the only solution and is willing to consider other "reasonable ideas."

"I want to discuss everything," he said. "This is too big a problem to look at it with one perspective."

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