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This story was updated Feb. 28, 2018, at 7:39 p.m. with more information.

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NASHVILLE — A House panel on Wednesday approved a bill allowing all Tennessee school districts to designate teachers trained by private firms to carry firearms despite objections from parents, teachers, a gun-reform group and Haslam administration officials who warned it might backfire.

The party-line 5-2 vote in the Civil Justice Subcommittee came in the midst of a national debate about school safety after the school shooting in Parkland, Fla., that left 17 students and teachers dead.  

Panel chairman Mike Carter, R-Ooltewah, voted for the measure, arguing that because the state isn't adequately funding school resource officers — law enforcement officers who receive special additional training to protect schools — "are we not directing nuts to the least-covered areas?"

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He said only about 40 percent of school systems statewide are covered and only about 34 percent of the schools in Hamilton County. Those not covered in Hamilton County include a number of elementary schools, Carter said.

"The SRO program is what we all want," he said. "That's a message to every department and specifically to the administration. We need to talk seriously about getting funded."

Earlier, Kathy Barnett, a volunteer with Tennessee Moms Demand Action, told the panel "you'd think we'd be discussing common-sense solutions to keep our schools safe and finding ways to keep guns out of the hands of people with dangerous histories. Instead, this committee is considering a dangerous bill that was just amended to arm our educators."

Rep. David Byrd, R-Waynesboro, the bill's sponsor and a retired principal, said the legislation is intended to help rural counties like his that cannot afford to hire school resource officers. 

The bill allows school boards and school directors authority to let designated staff members carry concealed firearms at schools. It's a dramatic expansion of a 2016 bill he sponsored that impacted only Wayne and Pickett counties, letting staffers undergo training under the state's Peace Officer Standards Training Commission (POST) standards.

Byrd said teachers in his rural county are willing to undergo the training but can't get it because the state only provides it to actual law enforcement officers. One of the adopted amendment's provisions allows for private security firms to provide the training.

Rep. Bill Beck, D-Nashville, said "I think it would be irresponsible for us to open this up at all schools. Just look at what happened today in Dalton" near Chattanooga.

The Times Free Press reported earlier Wednesday that Dalton, Ga., police officers took into custody a teacher who allegedly barricaded himself in a Dalton High School classroom and fired a handgun. He now faces multiple charges. 

Byrd said his bill specifies that school boards and directors could use only educators and staff who volunteer. The proposal requires the designated persons to have 40 hours of initial training and at least 16 hours of annual handgun training.

Other officials testifying said that was likely due to a concern about departments' legal liability in the event something went awry.

Other provisions require school directors to notify law enforcement personnel about who is authorized to carry firearms on campus. 

Because the state wouldn't provide training, Byrd said he and Sen. Joey Hensley, R-Hohenwald, followed up last year with yet another bill stating courses could be taught by local law enforcement officials using POST curriculum.

Byrd said that, because local officials balked, his new bill allows for the training to be conducted by certified private instructors.

"We've had this bill in place for two years and we still haven't had anyone to train," said Byrd, noting his schools can't afford to hire school resource officers and state grants have run dry.

He said a number of his legislative colleagues wanted the measure to apply to their counties, thus the dramatic expansion to all 95 Tennessee counties.

Beck and fellow Democrat Rep. G.A. Hardaway of Memphis agreed the state needs to be providing more funding for the SRO program.

But Hardaway reminded Republican colleagues that "the appropriation process is in our hands, gentlemen. We control the purse strings. It's a legislative process. I'd say we need to go ahead and give the distressed counties and Rep. Byrd the necessary funds to protect his babies."

Carter estimated that it costs about $50,000 annually to pay the costs for a school resource officer in Hamilton County.

Terry Ashe, executive director of the Tennessee Sheriffs Association, told Carter that when comes to Chattanooga over the years "there was maybe not the mood to put as many SROs in place as the mood is here to do a little more."

"Chattanooga's one of those very unique large cities that maybe could do a little better," Ashe said, noting he spoke with Sheriff Jim Hammond Tuesday. He said the sheriff told him "he's been contacted by the city and there's a willingness to maybe help him fund some more."

Contact Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com or 615-255-0550.

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