Preventing a repeat of the Connecticut school shootings may be better addressed through mental health services than new gun laws, Gov. Bill Haslam said Monday.
Haslam, questioned by reporters about the murders, also said his administration will hold a conference on school security next month. He said the discussion could include having more people at schools trained in dealing with violent attacks, as proposed by state Sen. Frank Niceley, R-Strawberry Plains.
Niceley said he is working on legislation that would require all Tennessee schools to either have a “school resource officer” for security – as most high schools do now — or train one or more staff members in use of firearms and dealing with violent attacks.
Haslam said he was sickened by the Connecticut slayings and expects them to trigger “a national debate (on guns) over the next three or four months.” But he was cautious about saying what his position would be in any such discussions.
“I don’t know that a lot of (gun-related) legislation I’ve seen so far that could have stopped what happened there,” he said. “I don’t know that I see a big need to change things.”
He observed that some argue more armed citizens could deter or stop such attacks, but “other people are saying yes, with assault weapons you raise the risk (of having attacks).”
“I do think addressing the mental health issue is much more the preventive way to address this,” he said. “The answer is not always legislation. The answer is our mental health professionals, our mental health department doing everything they can to prevent and to identify those who need help.”
The governor said expanded funding for mental health or for training of more school personnel in guns and security could be topics at the January conference being arranged by the state Department of Education.
At a news conference, Haslam initially said he thought – but was not certain – that the conference was planned before the Connecticut slayings. But later his spokesman, David Smith, said the idea of having conference on school safety came up “after Friday’s events.”
Niceley initially advanced his idea to require more security-trained staff at schools in a Facebook post. He said Monday in an interview that the reaction has been generally positive.
“It would appear to be reasonable, even though it costs a little money,” he said, adding the cost has not been calculated. “It could save some lives.”
Niceley said he believes trained staff could even be more effective than school resource officers, who wear uniforms, because potential attackers would not know who they are and they could keep their own guns concealed.
“The training would be beyond that required for carry permit holders and they would be subject to deep background checks and psychological testing. I don’t think we need to turn our schools into armed encampments, but clearly security is a concern and should be addressed,” Niceley said.
Haslam said he expects the Legislature to act in the coming session on allowing guns to be kept in locked cars, even in parking lots of businesses that prohibit weapons on their premises. Otherwise, Haslam said he believes Tennesseans “are fairly comfortable” with state gun laws as they stand now.
Asked about restrictions on assault weapons or the amount of ammunition that could be possessed by an individual, he indicated there would be little enthusiasm for such things in Tennessee.
“I think we’re a long way in this country from totally taking away bullets,” he said. “I can’t imagine that being on a serious agenda of any legislature.
Niceley said a ban on assault weapons would be pointless since those prone to violence would simply use other weapons.
“If we outlaw spoons could we stop this obesity problem?” he asked.
House Speaker Beth Harwell did not respond directly to a request for her views on assault weapon legislation and other gun issues. She said in an email that the “tragedy in Connecticut is heartbreaking.”
“I believe when it comes to public policy, though, our immediate reactions are just that–reaction. We need to thoughtfully consider the long-term impact of any policy. We are hoping to hear from Tennesseans on this issue, and I look forward to working with my colleagues on the best policy for Tennessee.”