Proposal to arm teachers with guns advances in Tennessee legislature

A bill that would open the door to teachers carrying guns in Tennessee schools passed its first hurdle Wednesday as state lawmakers sought to address inadequate funding to hire more law enforcement officers to police school campuses.

The House Civil Justice subcommittee approved the proposal over the objections of Gov. Bill Haslam, the state Department of Education, and a room filled with mothers and advocates of gun reform. The full committee is expected to take up the measure in the weeks ahead.

The bill would allow districts to adopt policies that let select school staff voluntarily carry a concealed firearm on school property. One school employee could carry a handgun for every 75 students and would be required to obtain a state permit and undergo 40 hours of training, plus another 16 hours of training annually.

The proposal is among several in Tennessee’s legislature aimed at increasing school safety in the wake of the Feb. 14 school shooting that killed 14 students and three faculty members in Parkland, Florida. Another bill would let districts use state money to hire off-duty law enforcement officers for $50 a day as an emergency measure.

Rep. David Byrd, a Waynesboro Republican and retired principal, said he’s sponsoring the teacher gun bill because of the outpouring of anger and concern he’s heard since the Florida tragedy.

“This may not be right for your school but, in rural counties … they are in favor of training teachers (to carry guns). They’re in a different situation and they see the need for it,” Byrd told lawmakers.

Tennessee has more than 900 law enforcement officers that are known as school resource officers. They police about 40 percent of the state’s public schools. Seventeen districts, most of which are city districts with only elementary schools, have none.

Byrd said the “best-case scenario” is to hire school resource officers, but added that’s not possible in many rural and financially distressed counties.

Most testimony Wednesday was against his proposal, which is co-sponsored by Sen. Joey Hensley, a Republican from Hohenwald.

Dickson County teacher Larry Proffitt used a personal day to travel to the State Capitol and ask lawmakers to “not turn us into a security force.”

“Teachers do not need to be armed, carrying guns on their hips in school,” he said, noting that districts that don’t have autonomy to accept or reject standardized testing shouldn’t be given that autonomy on firearms.

The bill doesn’t have the support of Haslam or the Department of Education. Last week, the Republican governor made his strongest statement yet about limiting access to guns. He also plans a comprehensive look at school safety statewide.

A Department of Education staff member expressed concern that letting teachers carry guns could actually discourage districts from spending money to hire school resource officers.  

Tennessee already has a 2016 law that allows school boards in rural Pickett and Wayne counties to authorize select school employees to carry concealed weapons. However, Byrd noted that law enforcement agencies there have refused to train those teachers.

Rep. G.A. Hardaway, a Memphis Democrat, balked at the suggestion that a lack of money for school resource officers makes arming teachers OK in districts that can’t afford them.

“We control the pursestrings,” Hardaway said. “It’s a legislative process. We need to go ahead and give the distressed counties and Rep. Byrd the necessary funds to protect his babies and to protect the children in his school system.”