February 21. 2013 7:18PM

Committee hears testimony on bill to allow teachers firearms in school

State House Bureau

CONCORD - If teachers and administrators were armed and trained, they would not need to hide under their desks looking for scissors and pens to defend themselves and their students when a madman attacks, said the prime sponsor of a bill to allow firearms in schools.

House Bill 609 would allow school districts to decide if licensed school employees would be able to carry firearms while on school property.

Rep. Dan Itse, R-Fremont, said after the Newtown, Conn., tragedy in which 20 children and six educators were killed he wanted to propose something to better protect students and educators.

When an incident happens, Itse said at a public hearing before the House Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee Thursday, police are unlikely to be there at the beginning. But properly trained, armed educators could confront an intruder "and stop mayhem dead in its tracks," he said.

Educators and the state school boards association opposed the bill, saying more guns are not needed in schools.

"It is both astounding and disturbing that following the recent tragedies, politicians and pundits who have spent little if any time in public schools have taken to the airwaves and to the State House floors to call for arming our teachers," said Scott McGilvray, president of NEA-NH. "As the rest of the country debates how to keep guns out of schools, in New Hampshire we are actually proposing bringing more guns in."

He and others suggested the bill's focus should be greater access to mental health services and meaningful gun control.

Gov. Maggie Hassan signaled the answer is not additional guns in the state's schools.

Hassan press secretary Marc Goldberg said: "The governor believes we must always be working to improve the safety of our schools and communities, but encouraging weapons in the classroom would put New Hampshire's children at risk of harm."

Under HB 609, a school board may place a warrant article to allow licensed employees to carry concealed weapons. Voters would decide the issue at an annual or special school district meeting. In districts without annual meetings, school boards could follow the procedure to adopt a resolution.

If the article passes, boards would have 90 days to establish and implement policies and procedures covering licensed employees carrying concealed weapons on school property.

Itse said the decision would be left to local voters.

"We're not telling them you have to do it," he said, "and we're not telling them they can't."

Supporters of the measure argued arming school employees would be a deterrent to anyone thinking about entering a school to cause death and mayhem.

"If a bad guy knows someone might be armed in a school," said former Rep. Spec Bowers of Sunapee, "he'll probably skip that school and go to the school where guns are not allowed."

Brian Blackden of Concord said he would have been willing to take on the responsibility of carrying a concealed weapon when he was an elementary substitute teacher.

"We live in violent times," Blackden said. "Some times we need the good guys to take on the bad guys."

But Dean Michener of the NH School Boards Association said arming school staff has the potential to create a very dangerous situation that could have an impact on a school district's legal responsibilities and liability.

"You're choosing the riskiest arena of all," Michener said. "The chances an armed teacher will hit a child are high."

He told the committee that even with significant training, New York City Police officers hit their target 18 percent of the time.

If several people have guns, police arriving at the scene may take the teacher for the perpetrator, he noted.

Janet Groat of Portsmouth, a member of Moms Demanding Action for Gun Sense, said her group was formed after the Newtown incident and is opposed to guns in the classroom.

"As a mother, this is very real to me and very personal." Groat said. "This is not an abstract discussion about the Constitution."

The committee did not make an immediate recommendation on the bill.