PHOENIX - A sharply divided Arizona House panel approved a bill Wednesday that allows designated teachers, administrators or other employees in remote rural schools to carry a handgun.
The bill sponsored by Republican Sen. Rich Crandall, of Mesa, also allows retired police officers who work in schools statewide to carry guns.
It is the least sweeping of several legislative proposals to arm teachers prompted by December's school shooting in Newtown, Conn., and the national gun control debate that followed. It appears to be the one most likely to pass the Legislature.
The bill is based on a 6-year-old Texas law, and with the exception of the retired officer provision, it only applies to rural schools that have 600 students or fewer, are at least 20 miles and 30 minutes from the nearest police station, and lack a school resource officer.
Wednesday's routine hearing in the House Appropriations Committee turned into a spirited debate between Democrats, whose efforts to get more funding for school resource officers, counselors and mental health have been stymied, and Republicans, who support what they say are reasonable efforts to protect schools far from police from an armed attacker.
Minority Leader Chad Campbell, D-Phoenix, joined other Democrats in arguing that even with additional firearms training, teachers just aren't qualified to be armed in schools.
"I applaud them for wanting to protect their schools, but they are not going to have the training to do this job," Campbell said. "I cannot imagine what would happen if you were a teacher and you accidentally shot a student."
He also used the hearing as a way to debate his all-but-ignored push for more funding for those Democratic priorities, which he called the "real issues."
"We're not debating these issues around here on a daily basis," Campbell said. "There are other options to this, and we're not debating them."
But committee chairman Rep. John Kavanagh and other Republicans pushed back, saying there just wasn't money to put officers in every school.
"You'd have to have an army of cops to have them in every school," Kavanagh said. "It's certainly better than nothing when you have a crazed shooter going around the campus," he said of allowing some rural educators to be armed.
Crandall has said his bill is a measured response to school safety issues and is designed to provide some protection to rural schools that are far from law enforcement centers. Other bills that have yet to advance in the Legislature would allow any district to designate teachers or administrators who received proper training to carry firearms.
"This has been crafted very narrowly for those rural school districts in very unique circumstances only with significant training," Crandall said in the Senate earlier this month.
Democrats and one Republican voted against the bill that passed the Appropriations Committee on a 6-5 vote Wednesday. It now goes to the full House after a routine legal review.