A Southeast Tennessee lawmaker hopes that arming some teachers with concealed weapons will give schools at least some form of defense in the face of a massacre such as the December slayings at a Connecticut elementary school.
Rep. Eric Watson, R-Cleveland, has introduced legislation allowing districts to opt into a program allowing educators voluntarily to receive law enforcement-style training to carry their concealed weapons at school. Watson said he's pitching his bill at the request of some 60 area teachers who don't want to go defenseless. And he says his bill won't create a Wild West atmosphere; he envisions only a few teachers in each building will carry arms.
"These teachers are not going to be carrying guns on their side," he said. "It's concealed, and no one will know. Nothing will change in the public's eye."
But many will, no doubt, balk at the idea of teachers bringing guns to school.
"It scares me to think that anyone in a school building would have a gun in their possession, with or without a license," said Hamilton County school board member Donna Horn. "It terrifies me."
Horn, a retired Hamilton County kindergarten teacher, said emotions sometimes run high in school buildings, and teachers shouldn't be put in a position to make life-ending decisions.
"I just think that anybody who has a gun in the heat of the moment could make a snap decision that could cost more lives in the long run," she said.
Horn said local schools can enact other safety measures, such as locking front doors, adding intercom entrance systems, rethinking the design of school entrances and ensuring that students aren't carrying backpacks around the building.
Hamilton County Schools Superintendent Rick Smith told the Times Free Press editorial board last month he didn't like the idea of armed teachers at school. And in a phone interview last week, county Sheriff Jim Hammond said he plans to discuss such ideas, among other school safety issues, though he wouldn't yet say whether he supports arming teachers.
Sandy Hughes, president of the Hamilton County Education Association, said most teachers here don't even have a locking drawer or file cabinet in their classroom. So a female teacher who potentially could carry a gun in her purse might find no secure storage space.
"I just think it's kind of crazy," she said. "We have all sorts of violence all over the world. Are we going to arm every single person in the United States?"
About the bill
Watson's bill, modeled after Texas law, would allow school boards and superintendents to opt in. Then, teachers with concealed carry permits would have to go through 40 hours of rigorous hostile and crisis management training before being allowed to carry at school. Teachers, not districts, would foot the bill for training.
Teachers would only be permitted to load with frangible bullets, which are designed to prevent ricochet. And the bill would indemnify districts from liability in civil action for damages, injuries or death resulting from teachers who fire their guns at school.
Watson, a former Bradley County Sheriff's Office captain, is chairman of the House Judiciary Committee.
Bradley County Schools Superintendent Johnny McDaniel stressed that the bill, which he supports, would require extensive training and planning and would not necessarily apply to all teachers with concealed carry permits.
"What I'm talking about is people who have training and really are interested in providing additional support in our schools," he said.
McDaniel said some of Bradley County's principals were especially moved by the actions of Sandy Hook Elementary Principal Dawn Lafferty Hochsprung, who reportedly died while trying to stop the gunman who killed 20 children and six adults before taking his own life. McDaniel says many of his principals likely would have done the same.
"She did everything she could to stop the gunman at the door. She was unarmed. And she gave her life," he said. "She really didn't have a fighting chance."
Other bills are in the works that would let teachers carry guns or take other measures to increase security in schools, The Tennessean newspaper in Nashville reported.
The federal Gun-Free School Zones Act of 1990 generally prohibits guns within 1,000 feet of schools, but includes exemptions that could be used to let teachers who hold a Tennessee handgun carry permit bring their guns into school buildings, according to The Tennessean. Also according to the Nashville paper:
• State Rep. Terri Lynn Weaver, R-Lancaster, has a proposal similar to Watson's -- teachers with carry permits could bring guns to school if they have special training and load frangible bullets.
• State Sen. Frank Niceley, R-Knoxville, has drafted a bill requiring districts to assign at least one armed officer to every school or to allow teachers to go armed.
• State Sen. Stacey Campfield, R-Knoxville, said he plans to propose three options for schools -- having trained student resource officers on campus; train faculty with carry permits, and require the school system to assume liability of its students.