Response mixed on bill to let teachers carry guns

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HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) — A bill that would allow Pennsylvania teachers and other school employees to carry guns at work drew a mixed reaction Tuesday from lawmakers.

Republican Sen. Donald White, R-Indiana, the prime sponsor, said at a Senate Education Committee hearing that the bill would give school boards more options for protecting students, especially those in rural areas that rely on often-distant state troopers for police protection.

Mark Zilinskas, an Indiana Area High School math teacher who was the leadoff witness for the bill, said the legislation would enable school employees who are licensed and trained to use guns to prevent a mass shooting, rather than react to it.

"They refer to the police as the first responders and we are the first responders. I am the first responder," he said, "and I believe that I can make a difference and other people like me can make a difference if we have the proper tools and training."

Proponents of the bill cited the 2012 massacre of 26 people at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut and an April knife attack at Franklin Regional High School near Pittsburgh that injured 21 people as examples of incidents that armed school employees might have stopped.

But Sen. Anthony Williams said it is a bad idea to place such a grave responsibility on people whose principal interest is educating children. The Philadelphia Democrat objected to what he called "the rush to arm people" as a solution to such a complex problem.

"We think a bullet and a gun is going to solve that, and I frankly think that that's an overreach for a very complicated layer of issues that we wrap up in the murder of a child," he said.

Sen. Andrew Dinniman, D-Chester, said all options should be considered.

"I think all of us are searching ... for a way to protect our young people, searching for a way to come up with the best solution," he said. "I don't think there's anyone who can say this is the only way."

The measure would authorize the state's 500 school boards to permit teachers, administrators and other staff members to arm themselves to protect students. They would have to be licensed to carry a concealed weapon and trained in the use of firearms.

Eighteen states currently allow school employees to have guns in schools, said Sen. Mike Folmer, the committee's chairman.

The Pennsylvania School Boards Association said it preferred not to take a position on the bill, at least in part because of the public debate over the role of guns.

"There are great differences of opinion about whether increasing the presence of firearms in schools is a wise or effective approach for enhancing school security," said Stuart Knade, the group's general counsel. "That is not a debate in which it is necessary or productive for PSBAS to take a position, and it would be difficult for PSBA to take a position on (the bill) without being perceived as jumping into that other debate."

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