MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — A deadly school shooting in neighboring Florida colored debate Thursday in the Alabama Legislature over “Stand Your Ground” legislation regarding the use of deadly force to defend someone in a church.
The proposed revision of the state’s self-defense law says a person is presumed justified in the use of force if they reasonably believe someone is about to seriously harm a church member. The Houses of Representatives approved the bill on a 40-16 vote. It now moves to the Alabama Senate.
Police say a 19-year-old former student opened fire at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, on Wednesday, killing 17 people. It was the nation’s deadliest school attack since a gunman targeted an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut, more than five years ago.
Republicans argued the Florida shooting showed the need for self-defense laws, while Democrats argued they encourage more shootings and the bill was unneeded since the state already has a broad “Stand Your Ground” law that would cover church incidents. The bill had been introduced before Wednesday’s shooting.
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Rep. Lynn Greer, a Republican from Rogersville, cited deadly church shootings in South Carolina and Tennessee, saying church members need the legal protection to “shoot back” if someone comes into a church with a gun intending to harm people.
“You got nuts everywhere just like you had in the high school in Florida yesterday. Occasionally, they show up in a church,” Greer said.
Rep. Chris England, a former prosecutor, said the bill would have no effect, since Alabama already has a self-defense law that would cover incidents in churches.
“It’s pandering. It doesn’t accomplish anything,” said England, a Democrat from Tuscaloosa.
Some Democrats launched a nearly three-hour filibuster against the bill, saying it would encourage violence. Rep. Laura Hall, a Democrat from Huntsville, said such laws send a message of “shoot first and ask questions later.”
Greer said large churches can afford to hire professional security teams and off-duty police officers, while small churches, such as in his hometown of 13,000 people, can’t afford to do so.
England said he found it “amazing, interesting that on the day after a school shooting where 17 people were murdered … that in Alabama we are having a debate about trying to figure ways to introduce guns in churches.”
Separate from the debate, state Rep. Will Ainsworth said he planned to introduce legislation to allow Alabama teachers, after undergoing training, to carry guns during school hours.
“Our children are sitting ducks in gun-free schools,” He wrote on social media.
State Rep. Terri Collins, who led a school-security task force, expressed skepticism at the idea. “My child’s a teacher. I wouldn’t want her to have to make the decision to have to draw down on a student,” Collins said.