Bill to arm Tennessee teachers advances over objections of law enforcement, educators

A bill that would let teachers carry concealed guns in Tennessee schools advanced Wednesday in the legislature, even as law enforcement officers and several teachers spoke against the proposal.

The measure, sponsored by Rep. Ryan Williams of Cookeville, is modeled after a controversial 2016 state law that allows full-time faculty, staff, and other employees of Tennessee’s public colleges and universities to carry concealed weapons on campus if they have handgun-carry permits and have notified campus police or their local law enforcement agency.

Williams, a Republican, told members of a House education subcommittee that he wants teachers in K-12 schools to be able to “have more than a stapler” to defend themselves and their students if they’re holed up in a classroom during an active-shooter situation.

“I’m not saying that this is the best solution. I’m not saying that this is the only solution. What I am saying is the Parkland shooting commission … felt like allowing teachers to carry guns might have saved lives,” Williams said of the investigation into last year’s shooting that killed 17 students and faculty at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.

Before the vote, several teachers, a student, a security consultant, and two law enforcement officials spoke against the proposal.

“It’s very concerning for law enforcement across our state,” said Montgomery County Sheriff John Fuson, who spoke in behalf of the Tennessee Sheriffs Association.

He worried that officers responding to a school shooting might mistake an armed teacher for the shooter. “That’s a big concern, probably the biggest concern of law enforcement,” Fuson said.

Murfreesboro teacher Jordan Randolph said “our students deserve schools that are sanctuaries from the violence in our world,” but that she did not believe arming teachers would make students or schools safer.

The discussion happened as both the Senate and House are expected on Thursday to pass Gov. Bill Lee’s $30 million school security initiative. The governor wants that funding to prioritize hiring more officers to keep students and teachers safer, although the amount falls far short of what it would cost to get a school resource officer in every Tennessee school.

“This is not intended to replace an SRO,” Williams said later of his bill. “But in the event that something happened and teachers and students were locked in a classroom with an intruder outside, a teacher could have a means by which to defend themselves and their students.”

He said he was motivated, in part, by concern about his own two children who attend a 2,400-student public high school with only one school resource officer.

“I understand people are polarized on this issue. But let’s talk about it before something happens, not after,” Williams said.

Another bill that would have opened the door to arming Tennessee teachers was discussed last year after the Parkland shooting but was opposed by then-Gov. Bill Haslam and stalled in committee. Haslam later ordered the state’s first-ever comprehensive security review of every school in Tennessee and budgeted $10 million in recurring funding and $25 million in one-time funding to help boost school building security.

Williams’ bill heads next to the House Education Committee, where Chairman Mark White said he will not support it. The Tennessee Education Association, the state’s largest teacher organization, also opposes the measure. But Sen. Dolores Gresham, who chairs her chamber’s education committee, said Thursday she is open to the idea.