AUGUSTA — A proposal to require high schools to teach gun safety and handling would be yet another mandate taxing schools and undercutting local control, critics said Thursday at a legislative hearing.

Maine Principals Association Executive Director Dick Durost said most communities in Maine already have such courses available nearby, and some even are offered through school districts’ adult education programs.

The sponsor of L.D. 93, Rep. Paul Davis, R-Sangerville, said the bill is not a reaction to the elementary school shooting in Newtown, Conn.

Even so, Durost said, the issue of guns in schools has become emotionally charged since then, and passage of the bill could cause controversy and angst in communities.

“We believe that this is just a conflict that we don’t want to put in place among our citizens that are well-intentioned on both sides of the issue,” he said.

Davis wants to require public high schools to offer a firearm safety and handling course that would be optional for students. He said instructors at local gun clubs probably would be happy to teach the courses at little cost to the schools.

Davis said that in his law enforcement career — 23 years with the Maine State Police — he saw the aftermath of terrible accidents that happened because of ignorance about guns.

“I’m not asking you to have teachers armed, and I’m not asking that signs saying ‘gun-free zone’ be removed (from schools),” he said. “I only want children and students to know about guns, how they work and how to be safe with them.”

Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine Executive Director David Trahan testified in favor of the bill and said elementary schools also need to provide firearm education to younger children. He said Maine could use as a model or adopt the National Rifle Association’s Eddie Eagle GunSafe program, which trains young children not to touch guns.

Maureen King, of Kennebunk, a past president of the Maine School Boards Association, said the association supports teaching young children to avoid guns, perhaps alongside other health and safety topics.

Even so, she said decisions about gun safety courses — including those that involve actually handing guns — need to be made by school boards, not the state government.

Public schools already have to fit a wide range of subjects and tests into 175 days, King said.

“To then carve out a time where we now put kids on a bus, drive them off site for an afternoon or for a day, it’s going to be one more thing that we chip away,” she said. “And what do we give up? Do we give up English, do we give up foreign language, do we give up math?”

Michael Cianchette, chief legal counsel to Gov. Paul LePage, said the governor could offer qualified support for the proposal.

Cianchette said LePage believes responsible gun ownership begins with education and respect for firearms, but a mandate is not the way to accomplish it. Instead, the Education and Cultural Affairs Committee should find a way to encourage schools to share information about existing firearm safety and handling courses, he said.

Susan McMillan — 621-5645

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