AUGUSTA — A bill that would require Maine’s public high schools offer gun safety and handling courses attracted the support of two Republican legislators and Gov. Paul LePage at a public hearing Thursday.
And even those who opposed the legislation sponsored by Rep. Paul Davis, R-Sangerville, agreed that gun safety training for youngsters in Maine was a worthy pursuit.
Davis, a former Maine State Police trooper, described his legislation, LD 93, as a measure that would enhance public safety and offer victims of domestic violence a tool that could protect them.
“In these situations, these victims [of domestic violence-related slayings] did everything the law provided,” Davis told members of the Legislature’s Education Committee. “I have to wonder if they knew anything about guns. I don’t think they did. However, if they did and they wanted to protect themselves, what would have happened?”
Davis said he’s astonished at a general level of ignorance surrounding the use of firearms.
“There are over 300 million firearms in the United States and right here in our own state, this number is growing as I speak,” he said. “It’s my belief not to find ways to familiarize people is a mistake. I don’t come to this willy-nilly. It’s a not knee-jerk reaction to what happened in Connecticut and other places.”
Davis’ bill is the fourth effort in recent decades to pass a law requiring gun-safety courses in public schools, the Sun Journal reported last month. The previous three legislative attempts, made in the 1990s, were unsuccessful. Davis’ bill is among more than 80 gun-related initiatives introduced in the Maine Legislature after December’s deadly school shooting in Newtown, Conn.
Davis said he’s not interested in burdening cash-strapped public schools with another expensive mandate. Gun clubs could offer students courses off campus at no cost, he said, and organizations such as the National Rifle Association could volunteer certified instructors to teach students about gun safety.
Davis added that he’s not looking to require all students take gun safety courses, only that the state’s public high schools offer them the chance.
“I’m not asking you to have teachers be armed,” he said, referring to a bill proposed by Sen. David Burns, R-Whiting, that would allow trained school employees to carry concealed weapons at school. “I only want the children and students to have a chance to learn about guns and how they work as well as how to be safe with them.”
David Trahan, executive director of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine, suggested schools offer instruction modeled after the NRA’s Eddie Eagle gun safety program, which teaches young children who encounter guns to immediately leave the area and inform an adult. Gun safety instruction should start with the youngest students, he said, and then it could grow.
The NRA says its Eddie Eagle program has been offered to 25 million children in all 50 states.
“The program gives children a simple, effective action to take if they encounter a firearm in an unsupervised situation,” Trahan said.
“If you’re promoting the idea of NRA people doing this training as part of the bill we’re considering, I’m wondering if we can have the assurance that this safety training does not evolve over into advocacy,” said Rep. Bruce MacDonald, D-Boothbay, who is chairman of the education panel.
“There’s no politics associated with an instructor helping a first-grader live a safer life,” Trahan said. “I don’t expect a school to have a shooting range in the back where kids go and learn how to shoot. I have no interest in that.”
But representatives of school boards, superintendents and principals said it would be inappropriate to saddle public schools with another state-level mandate.
Gun safety courses are widely available in communities throughout the state, said Maureen King, a past president of the Maine School Boards Association. And gun safety is useful material to include in health classes, she said.
“We oppose this bill because it attempts to legislate curriculum, which is the responsibility of the local school board,” King said. “I just feel like it would be one more thing that would chip away, and what would we give up? Do we give up English? Do we give up foreign language, math?”
Michael Cianchette, LePage’s chief legal counsel, told lawmakers the governor supports educating children about gun safety.
“Responsible ownership begins with education and respect,” Cianchette said. “The governor does not believe a law is necessary to achieve this end.”