AUGUSTA, Maine — In another emotionally charged vote, the Legislature’s Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee voted down a bill Wednesday that would have allowed some public school workers to carry concealed handguns.
The bill, LD 1430, offered by Sen. David Burns, R-Whiting, would have left the decision to local school boards and would have required the Maine Criminal Justice Academy to develop a training program for those who carried guns in schools.
The committee’s 5-4 vote against the bill came after nearly three hours of debate and discussion on the matter as lawmakers, including Rep. Mark Dion, D-Portland, the committee’s House chairman, worked to find common ground on the measure.
One idea was to allow school officials who were armed to complete the training required to become a licensed police officer, but behind-the-scenes negotiations broke down.
Four members of the committee who were absent when the vote was cast will have until 5 p.m. Thursday to vote, but the outcome isn’t expected to change and the bill likely will head to the House of Representatives for a debate and vote later this month.
Burns, a retired homicide detective for the Maine State Police, said he introduced the bill at the request of a constituent.
Rural lawmakers on the panel, along with those who have been proponents of gun-owner rights, sided with Burns. The vote split largely along party lines, with Democrats opposing the measure and Republicans supporting it, with the exception of Rep. Tim Marks, D-Pittston. Marks, also a retired state trooper, sided with Republicans.
The bill, according to Burns, would have given schools in the most rural parts of Maine the opportunity to have armed protection in the event of a school shooting while they awaited a response from law enforcement. Burns and others said that for some schools in northernmost Maine towns, it can take as long as an hour for police to respond to a school.
But others on the panel said school districts already can contract with local police departments or sheriff’s offices to have armed resource officers inside their schools.
The bill would have allowed school boards to establish procedures and guidelines to allow a properly trained school employee to carry a concealed handgun on school property. It also would require school districts to carry liability insurance and to pay the staff member a stipend.
At one point, the committee pondered whether the bill would already be superseded by federal law and questioned whether they could vote to allow someone other than law enforcement to carry a deadly weapon on school grounds.
Setting that overarching issue aside, Dion said what the panel was ultimately trying to decide was a complex policy decision on the use of deadly force.
Dion, a former Cumberland County sheriff, said that wasn’t an issue they could take lightly and those with law enforcement experience on the committee recognized that.
“Which agency do we feel most comfortable having those responsibilities?” Dion said. “Is public safety an appropriate policy arena for schools to engage in and, in doing so, can they decide questions about deadly force?”
Dion added, “The deadly force question is central to police command staff operations. It’s not something we take lightly; it comes with experience. There are a number of liability issues that arise from that. When you exercise deadly force, that was the easier part of the equation. It’s what follows from the litigants and the parties. It’s one of the hardest things that police departments get involved with. It’s the one citizens have the most concerns about.”
Others agreed but said an armed person at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., may have been able to stop or limit the killing rampage of a gunman there last December that claimed the lives of 20 students and six adults.
“We’ve considered many bills this session that deal with guns and safety,” said Sen. Gary Plummer, R-Windham. “This, in my opinion, is the only bill that we have considered that has the potential of preventing — once that deranged individual makes the decision and goes to a school — that could save any lives.”
Plummer said the bill was well-constructed and well-thought-out and ultimately left the decision in local hands.
“Frankly, I don’t think a lot of the state would jump on board and say, ‘Oh, yeah, we can arm school employees,’” Plummer said.
Rep. Joshua Plante, D-Berwick, said most of what he’s heard from those who lost loved ones in recent mass shootings has been opposition to adding more guns to the equation.
“We talk about the emotional side of this and considering what we would do to protect our children and protect those we love from such a crime,” Plante said. “I don’t recall seeing where the voters came back and said, ‘I want more teachers with guns.’”
He said of the families of the 20 children killed in Newtown, only one parent of 40 has said a good guy with a gun in the school would have saved lives. “The other 39, or 97.5 percent by numbers, have said something is wrong with this country.”
Others, including Rep. Corey Wilson, R-Augusta, said it was clear to him the committee wasn’t going to agree on the issue and that the sides would likely remain divided, regardless of any changes to the bill.
Sen. Stan Gerzofsky, D-Brunswick, the Senate chairman of the committee, said there was little doubt the tragedy in Newtown had propelled one of the most vigorous gun debates in legislative history.
“We’ve looked at 30 gun bills, more than any Legislature in the history of the state of Maine,” Gerzofsky said.