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February 6, 2013

Lawmakers delay action on school gun proposal

ATLANTA — With their first opportunity to address gun laws since a lone shooter killed 20 Connecticut schoolchildren in December, Georgia lawmakers decided to do nothing. At least until next week.

A Bartow County Republican wants local school boards to be able to designate school administrators who can carry weapons, provided they are trained to use them. Rep. Paul Battles told his colleagues Tuesday that his idea would give local authorities a way to protect students without forcing them to spend money on armed officers.

“I wish House Bill 35 were not necessary,” he said, “but I’m afraid it is.”

But Alan Powell, the Hartwell Republican who leads the House panel that writes public safety law, told the sponsor after more than two hours of debate that he will delay a vote until a special subcommittee can work through details of the proposal. Powell said he wants consensus on the training that would be required, the kind of weapons that would be allowed and effects on schools’ liability insurance.

The delay and the lengthy hearing that preceded it underscore the complicated policy questions and sensitive political calculations at play since the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School. The debate also comes just days after a non-fatal shooting at Price Middle School in Atlanta.

Gov. Nathan Deal and the Republican-dominated legislature have made clear that they will not entertain new restrictions on the manufacture, sale and possession of firearms and ammunition. But GOP leaders are less clear about how they want to handle a range of proposals that could expand gun presence in public places.

Several tea party conservatives have introduced bills that would roll back all existing restrictions on where Georgia residents can carry concealed weapons, including in schools and churches. None of those proposals have had a committee hearing, as top Republicans like House Speaker David Ralston have carefully singled out Battles’ bill as “a reasonable approach.”

Battles framed his proposal Tuesday as a “school safety bill, not a gun bill.”

He and several members noted that many Georgia high schools already have armed officers, either paid directly by school systems or, in some cases, local law enforcement agencies. But he said “there is no money” — or at least the political will to find the money — to make that a statewide practice. The next best strategy, Battles argued, is to expand administrators’ responsibilities, as long as the decisions are made locally.

Rep. Alex Atwood, R-St. Simons, pressed Battles on whether training would go beyond simple handling and shooting proficiency. Atwood, who worked in law enforcement, was among several lawmakers who said the training should include scenarios that teach when to use and not use a weapon.

Several legislators asked about concerns that arming administrators could drive up liability insurance for schools. Others wondered whether systems would expose themselves to civil liability if they had the option to arm school officials and chose not to.

The most skeptical questions came from Atlanta Democrats who talked of the possibility that the weapons could end up in the hands of students. “If it’s not going to ensure we have no more tragedies, then what are we doing?” asked Rep. Scott Holcomb.

At the other end of the spectrum, Republican Kevin Cooke of Carrolton argued that Georgia should just lift restrictions that prohibit concealed weapons on campuses. “Let’s take off that label of gun-free zone,” he said and allow teachers with permits to have weapons in the classroom. Battles told Cooke he was free to pursue the idea, “but not in my bill.”

The political sensitivity was obvious Tuesday because of who didn’t speak: no one from Deal’s office and no one from state Superintendent John Barge’s office. Several representatives of law enforcement agencies sat silently in the gallery.

Lobbyists for Georgia’s local superintendents and local school board members said their organizations aren’t taking a position on the proposal.

Members of the newly formed One Million Moms for Gun Control, meanwhile, urged legislators to spike the idea. Brenda Kendrick, a school psychologist, told members of a personal connection to the debate. Her niece, Austin Cloyd, was one of the Virginia Tech University students killed in a 2007 mass shooting.

“I think about my niece every day,” Kendrick said. “The reasons for these tragedies are complex, as are the solutions. But I strongly believe that adding more guns is not the solution.”

 

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