By Chip Brownlee
Alabama Political Reporter
The two top leaders of Alabama’s Legislature seemed somewhat divided Thursday about the realities of getting gun and school safety legislation out of their chambers before the fast-approaching end of the legislative session.
House Speaker Mac McCutcheon, R-Monrovia, was more optimistic about the chances of school and gun safety legislation getting out of the House, while Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh, R-Anniston, was less hopeful about the bills’ chances in the Legislature’s upper chamber.
“We’re looking for any kind of common threads among the bills so that we may be able to consolidate some of the bills into one package if you will,” McCutcheon said. “At the end of the day, we’re trying to take a broad, overall approach of looking at school safety and looking at different aspects of what we’re dealing with.”
Lawmakers in Montgomery are up for re-election this year, and most are hoping to get home before the end of March to campaign — far before the constitutionally mandated end to the legislative session that would come in early- to mid-April.
Whether lawmakers will get any gun or school safety bills out of the Legislature before sine dine approaches in the next few weeks is still up for debate — much like the many recent bills filed after a school shooting in Florida took the lives of 17 students and educators.
Closer to home, three deadly shootings on Wednesday added urgency to the debate on firearms and school safety.
An accidental school shooting at Huffman High School in Birmingham Wednesday took the life of one student, Courtlin Arrington, who was 17.
Two Democratic senators took to the floor Thursday to remember the victims and deliver emotional pleas for action.
“I cannot imagine what those children are going through, not just at Huffman Highschool, but all over the state where this is happening,” said State Sen. Linda Coleman-Madison, D-Birmingham, whose district includes Huffman High School. “Our young people are witnessing things that will impact their lives and how they see the world forever.”
A drive-by shooting in Huntsville that took the life of 3-year-old Olivia Robinson. Coleman-Madison said the safety of the state’s children is at risk.
“While everyone, I think, in this case, is a victim, I also think that everyone is responsible, including us,” Coleman-Madison said. “Because I don’t think that we are doing enough to protect our young people.”
In the small East Alabama town of Hurtsboro, a man entered a local diner with a .22 caliber rifle, shooting and killing the diner’s longtime owner, Don Hughes, while injuring three other people who were dining there.
The suspect in Hurtsboro is in police custody and the student at Huffman High School has been taken and questioned by police.
Sen. Billy Beasley, D-Clayton, the Democratic majority leader, led a moment of silence for the Hurtsboro victims.
“We are living in turbulent, violent times,” he said.
Marsh said Thursday that he expects the Legislature to wait until a council created by Gov. Kay Ivey returns recommendations on school safety later this spring. Ivey announced the creation of the Securing Alabama Facilities of Education (SAFE) Council at a press conference on Tuesday.
The SAFE Council is expected to return a report by the end of April, but that’s weeks after the Legislature is scheduled to return to their districts.
“The governor is going to do all she can through this commission to make things even better than they are now,” Marsh said. “My hope is we kind of wait for this commission to report what they think needs to be done versus everybody just throwing in bills trying to decide what law enforcement and educators should do.”
Marsh said he expects the gun and school safety legislation to be 2019 issues unless the governor were to call a special session during the summer.
“If she sees something that’s very urgent, she could call a special session, and if she were to choose to do so, we would respect that,” Marsh said. “Otherwise, I think 2019 is the year for it.”
McCutcheon and Marsh’s comments Thursday came after the powerful House speaker met with proponents of several different proposals filed in the House. He said their conference meetings were an attempt to find those common threads.
The bills range from the conservative end of the spectrum to the more liberal end. A bill proposed by Rep. Will Ainsworth, R-Guntersville, would arm teachers in the classroom and another from Rep. Allen Farley, R-McCalla, aims to create armed volunteer security forces supervised by local sheriffs.
Even some Republicans have been hesitant about Ainsworth’s plan, citing the many “variables” that would be present if a teacher were to intervene in the case of an active shooter.
On the Democratic side of the aisle, Rep. Juandalynn Givan, D-Birmingham, filed a bill after the Parkland shooting that would raise the age limit to purchase long guns like the AR-15 from age 18 to 21, while Rep. Laura Hill, D-Birmingham, has another that would ban all semi-automatic rifles.
More bills have followed. Rep. Merika Coleman, D-Birmingham, proposed a law that would allow the courts to take guns away from people who have been deemed to be a threat to themselves or others.
“All of these things are a part of what we’re discussing,” McCutcheon said. “We’re just moving forward. But at this point, I can’t tell you, yes, we are going to do this piece of legislation or no, we’re not going to do it. We’re still evaluating.”
McCutcheon said the Alabama House is looking at a recent comprehensive bill passed in Florida in the wake of the school shooting there that would raise the age limit to buy guns to 21, allow the arming of some teachers and implement a three-day waiting period before someone is allowed to purchase firearms.
A former law enforcement official who has been involved in several life-or-death situations involving firearms, McCutcheon said he hopes the issue won’t become a right-or-left political issue or campaign talking point for Alabama lawmakers.
“I don’t want this issue to turn into a political issue because our children are more important than the politics of getting elected,” McCutcheon said.
Coleman-Madison said lawmakers “are part of the cause” and the time is now to act.
“I don’t have answers, but I do believe it’s on all of us,” Coleman-Madison said. “It doesn’t end here. It happened in my district this time. It’s just a knock away from your communities, the schools that your children attend, the churches that you worship at every Sunday.”