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Tennessee lawmaker pulls his bill to arm teachers — for now

Rep. Ryan Williams presents a bill on April 4 to allow Tennessee teachers to carry a concealed weapon. The Cookeville Republican has since pulled his proposal from consideration in the 2018 legislative session.
Rep. Ryan Williams presents a bill on April 4 to allow Tennessee teachers to carry a concealed weapon. The Cookeville Republican has since pulled his proposal from consideration in the 2018 legislative session.
Marta W. Aldrich/Chalkbeat

A proposal to let Tennessee teachers carry concealed weapons in school has been dropped from this legislative session, but the bill’s sponsor said Thursday that he may resurrect the idea next year.

Rep. Ryan Williams pulled his controversial bill from consideration by the House Education Committee on Wednesday, one week after the measure easily cleared a subcommittee over the objections of teachers and law enforcement leaders.

“In communicating with law enforcement over the last week, I’ve come to find out that we have a lot of work to do,” Williams said of discussions with the Tennessee Highway Patrol and the Tennessee Association of Chiefs of Police.

The Cookeville Republican served on former Gov. Bill Haslam’s task force on school safety, which convened after last year’s shooting deaths of 17 people at a high school in Parkland, Florida. Those discussions led to additional state funding for campus security and the first-ever security assessment of every K-12 school in Tennessee.

Now, based on new conversations spurred by his bill, Williams is concerned the assessment didn’t go far enough to nail down which local law enforcement agencies would take the lead if a school shooting occurs. He says those decisions should get priority over any discussions about whether teachers or school employees should carry guns.

“The truth of the matter is that, depending on each [school district], we don’t even know [who’s in charge.] Usually it’s based upon whoever shows up first,” Williams told the committee, calling that revelation “disconcerting” because clear coordination by local law enforcement is critical for responding to an active-shooter situation.

Williams plans to spearhead more talks about those concerns and is adopting a wait-and-see approach on another bill that seeks to address them. Sponsored by Rep. Brandon Ogles of Franklin and Sen. Dolores Gresham of Somerville, that measure already has passed in the Senate and will soon head to the full House.

“The goal of this legislation is to help schools and law enforcement agencies to work together on a safety plan. Some places already have that in place, some don’t,” said Maggi Duncan, executive director of the police chiefs group.

Her organization opposed Williams’ bill to let teachers go armed, as did the state’s sheriffs association, and the Tennessee Highway Patrol. High on their list of concerns: the potential for even more gun-related deaths or injuries in a state that already has a higher-than-normal rate of accidental shootings.

Nationally, guns belonging to teachers or school officers have been left out or accessible to students at least 60 times in the last five years, according to a new study by a group favoring tougher gun control laws.

Williams has argued that teachers need “more than a stapler” to protect their students and themselves if locked in a classroom with a shooter in the building. He said Thursday that he hasn’t changed his mind about that approach and is reserving the right to press for his bill in the second half of Tennessee’s two-year legislative session.

“Whether they carry a gun or not,” Williams said, “I just want school teachers to know that I trust them to do the right thing if they’re trapped in a classroom with their students during an active-shooter situation.”

Democratic leaders said Williams was wise to park his bill for the year and praised passage this spring of Gov. Bill Lee’s $30 million plan to place 500 school resource officers in schools that don’t currently have one, many in rural areas.

“Everybody up here recognizes the safety of students should be a priority,” said Senate Minority Leader Jeff Yarbro of Nashville, “but I think the bipartisan approach we’ve already taken is much more sensible and will provide more security for our students.”

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