A bill that would open the door to arming some Tennessee teachers died Tuesday after state lawmakers exchanged occasionally harsh words about whether educators with handguns would actually make students safer.
Meanwhile, another bill emerged as an alternative and would place armed, off-duty law enforcement officers in schools that aren’t already patrolled by school resource officers. It’s an expensive measure — up to $48 million annually — but lawmakers who back it pledged to get that number down.
Chairman Harry Brooks declared that the proposal to arm teachers failed on a close voice vote after almost an hour of debate in the House Education Administration and Planning Committee.
The decision ended the march of a measure that had easily cleared two legislative hurdles and was scheduled to make its debut later Tuesday in the Senate, where the powerful chairman of the chamber’s education committee had signed on as a co-sponsor. The bill already had 46 co-sponsors in the 99-member House.
But the measure was opposed by Gov. Bill Haslam, who is proposing additional money to hire more school resource officers in economically distressed counties without them. The state’s largest teachers union and the Tennessee Sheriffs Association were also against arming teachers.
Lawmakers asked pointed questions about training, liability, and the need for armed teachers when, just last week, the governor submitted his emergency school safety plan in response to the Feb. 14 shooting that left 17 people dead at a Florida high school.
The exchange got testy when Rep. Eddie Smith talked about two school shootings near his Knoxville district in 2008 and 2010.
“To be honest with you, it feels like the bill has been put together on the back of a napkin that’s held together with bubblegum and duct tape,” said Smith, who did not offer specifics. “I just don’t think this is the right time to bring this bill up. I don’t think this bill is ready.”
Sponsoring Rep. David Byrd took issue with that, saying that he’s worked on the bill for three years, initially as a way to provide security coverage in two rural counties that he represents that haven’t had school resource officers for years. “It wasn’t something I wrote down on a napkin,” the Waynesboro Republican told Smith.
Rep. Roger Kane, a Knoxville Republican who is a former teacher, suggested that it’s smarter for teachers to stay with their students during a lockdown situation, and he questioned how an armed teacher could confront a shooter with a semi-automatic weapon.
“A teacher with a handgun taking on an intruder with an AR-15 is bringing a slingshot to a bazooka festival,” he said. “You can’t win that competition.”
Others praised Byrd’s bill as a way to make schools safer, especially in rural areas where many educators are avid hunters who are used to handling guns.
“What I love about this legislation, it keeps a question in the mind of someone who comes [into schools] who would do harm to our children,” said Rep. Terri Lynn Weaver, a Republican from Smith County. “Unfortunately, we just don’t live in Mayberry R.F.D.”
Also Tuesday, committees in both the House and Senate unanimously advanced another bill that would allow armed, off-duty officers to provide security in schools that don’t already have an SRO.
Unlike SROs, those officers could not address student discipline unless a crime is committed. But they also could pursue SRO certification, which requires an additional 40 hours of training.
“This bill is not meant to be a permanent solution,” said Rep. Micah Van Huss of Jonesborough, sponsoring the measure along with Sen. Mark Green of Clarksville. “It’s meant to be an emergency measure for four years until we’re able to get something more permanent in place.”
Van Huss said the bill’s annual $48 million price tag was the maximum and could be pared down to almost half of that. He pledged to work on that with the House Finance Committee.
The governor is neutral on the bill, said Haslam press secretary Jennifer Donnals.
Haslam’s school safety plan includes an additional $30 million for school safety grants, but most of that is a one-time boost in spending.
Editor’s note: This story has been updated with additional information.