AUGUSTA, Maine — On a 19-14 party-line vote Tuesday, the Maine Senate rejected a bill that would have allowed trained and vetted public school employees to carry concealed firearms in an attempt to improve safety.
Republicans supported the bill while Democrats voted against it.
The bill, LD 1429, offered by Sen. David Burns, R-Whiting, would have allowed local school districts to decide by districtwide referendum and school board approval if they wanted to arm select staff members.
The bill would have required those selected to carry firearms to be willing to do so, permitted under the state’s concealed handgun law, undergo both a criminal background check and a psychological screening and attend special training offered at the Maine Criminal Justice Academy.
Burns, a retired Maine State Police detective, said he offered the bill because police response times to some of the schools in his rural Senate District 29 in northeastern Maine’s Washington County were longer than a hour.
“It may take even longer for a backup officer to arrive and indeed a matter of hours for a properly trained tactical response team to get to that location,” Burns said during a floor speech Tuesday. “Is that the same for your community? I hope not.”
While the recent school shooting tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., last December reignited the debate on public school security, Burns said he had been contemplating the legislation for more than two years.
Burns said he thought the measure was safe, practical and would allow a trained individual to “stand in the gap” when an armed assailant attacked a school, buying time until a trained officer could arrive.
“I had no intention of expecting a teacher or a staff member to take the place of a professional police officer, although I have met a lot of those people in that profession that I would have gladly had stand beside me in my law enforcement career,” Burns said.
Still, he said, even the bravest teachers and other staff who attempted to stop the Sandy Hook shooter had no chance.
“The only real response to deadly force is deadly force,” Burns said. “Facing an armed killer without a weapon is futile and can only add to the number of lost lives.”
But Democrats opposing the bill said Maine public districts already had the ability to place armed police officers inside schools in the form of resource officers if they chose to do so. They also said arming teachers or other staff would have a negative psychological impact on students, and guns in schools would increase the chance of a firearms-related incident or accident.
Sen. Stan Gerzofsky, D-Brunswick, said school resource officers were “fully trained, not to the minimum standard but to the maximum standard.”
He said the 18-week course police officers in Maine complete, including training in tactical and active-shooter scenarios, couldn’t be replicated in an abbreviated course for school staff.
The Legislature approved police officers in schools years ago “to allow our communities to protect our most valuable, which are our children,” Gerzofsky said. “This bill, I don’t believe, enhances that at all. The things that are available in this bill are already available under current law.”
Gerzofsky said any school in Maine could hire a community resource officer regardless of how rurally located they were. Barring that he said schools could contract with the county sheriffs for deputies.
But Burns later said the cost for doing that for most schools would be prohibitive.
Sen. Chris Johnson, D-Somerville, said the bill included provisions requiring new liability insurance for districts that choose to allow qualified school staff to carry firearms.
“There’s a reason,” he said. “Because there is the possibility opened up by what this bill allows for adverse outcomes. That’s my biggest worry with this. What we are talking about is putting guns in schools in the hands of not fully trained officers.”
The Maine Education Association, the state’s teachers union, also opposed the bill, while the state’s association of school superintendents remained neutral on the proposal.