MONTGOMERY — A proposal to let trained teachers carry firearms in public schools drew support and criticism during a legislative public hearing Wednesday as a committee grappled with the first action on a gun-related bill introduced in the wake of the fatal shooting last month at a Florida high school.
The bill by Republican Rep. Will Ainsworth of Guntersville would allow teachers and school administrators who undergo police training to carry a handgun on school property. Ainsworth argued most schools cannot afford to keep paid law enforcement officers on campus, leaving teachers and children vulnerable.
"What happens when a gunman gets in our schools?" Ainsworth said during a hearing before the House Public Safety and Homeland Security Committee. "Deadly force is what needs to be there."
But opponents of the bill argued that introducing guns into schools will increase the risk to students instead of mitigating it, when non-law enforcement officers attempt to respond to an active shooter.
"The probability of things going wrong is very high," said Lisa Tucker of the Alabama Association of School Boards.
Limestone County Superintendent Tom Sisk, who is a firearms instructor, noted that law enforcement officers don't always hit what they aim for when firing a gun and it's less likely teachers will do so in a chaotic situation.
"The majority of Alabama teachers do not want to be armed. They just want to teach," said Elizabeth White, a teacher and volunteer with Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America.
However, the measure drew support from another superintendent, gun rights proponents and others.
DeKalb County Superintendent Jason Barnett said people in the school system with law enforcement experience "could help in a last-line of defense."
Barnett said 14 campuses are scattered across his rural county, making it challenging for the local sheriff's department to respond quickly.
The debate highlighted divisions between gun enthusiasts and gun control supporters over whether introducing firearms bolsters safety or increases risk of a tragedy. The debate also brought pleas for additional resources for school security from both opponents and supporters of the bill.
Barnett, who supported the bill, urged lawmakers to also take a holistic approach. Another speaker noted that to get into the Statehouse for the hearing, people passed through controlled entrances with metal detectors. Metal detectors were not in use the day of a fatal shooting this month at a Birmingham high school.
Lawmakers held a hearing on a separate proposal to allow certain school employees to access weapons as part of a security team.
The proposals are in multiple bills introduced following the Feb. 14 Florida shooting. Gun control proposals, such as raising the required age to purchase an AR-15 or similar weapon, have not gotten committee action in the GOP-dominated Alabama Legislature.
The committee, which includes several law enforcement officers and at least one former teacher, appeared divided ahead of a Thursday vote on the bills to arm teachers.
"Teachers are not trained for shooting guns," said Republican Rep. Harry Shiver, a former high school coach and teacher.
Republican Rep. Issac Whorton of Valley said he supports the bill, noting that his school systems can't afford some options that some wealthier systems have. He said some schools, as a last-ditch defense, have sought to have students bring canned goods to hurl at a potential shooter.
"That's an actual program," Whorton said.