AUGUSTA — State law enforcement officials said Monday that a bill that would ban BB guns and non-firing replica firearms in schools is necessary to protect students from potential tragedies, but opponents contend it is too broad and would do little to improve school safety.
Supporters of the measure say police officers could easily mistake the realistic-looking firearms for the real thing, especially with security concerns running high in light of school shootings across the country. They say a scenario of a student entering a school building with such a firearm could end badly if an officer is forced to make a quick decision, pointing to incidents like one in California last year when a 13-year-old boy was fatally shot by a sheriff’s deputy who said he thought a BB gun was an assault rifle.
School resource officer Rachel Horning, with the Kittery Police Department, told the Education and Cultural Affairs Committee on Monday that’s the type of tragedy she’s trying to avert.
“I will do 100 percent what I need to protect myself and others,” she said. “So, if the juvenile presents that lookalike weapon and refuses to drop it, I will act.”
But the measure is receiving pushback from groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine, which said Monday that creating a new crime that will primarily affect young people will cause students to be unnecessarily funneled from schools to jails. People could face up to six months in jail for violating the proposed law, and people with criminal convictions often face employment discrimination, are barred from public housing and have less access to educational opportunities, said Oami Amarasingham, public policy counsel for the civil liberties group.
“For a young person who made one mistake in her youth, these serious consequences could prevent her from becoming a contributing member of society,” she told lawmakers.
Democratic Sen. Dawn Hill of Cape Neddick introduced the measure in response to Horning finding a BB gun that looked like a real weapon in a student’s car outside a Kittery high school last year. Horning said the student had a mental health diagnosis and intended to use the fake firearm as a showpiece in case someone tried to fight him. Without a law regarding replica firearms, Horning wasn’t able to get the student the help and services he needed in the juvenile justice system, she said.
David Trahan, executive director of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine, said in his prepared testimony to the committee that law enforcement officers are specifically trained to deal with this dilemma and that there are other ways to ensure the safety of students that don’t carry the negative impacts of this bill.
“If school personnel, including police officers, have concerns that a child has a mental health issue that rises to a level where a reasonable person would believe they are a threat to the public or themselves, there should be a clear process to address the officer’s concerns under the mandatory reporting provisions currently in state law for teachers and health care workers,” he said.