ANCHORAGE -

A bill that would allow village public safety officers to carry firearms unanimously passed the Alaska House on Monday.

H.B. 199 moves to the Senate following the 38-0 vote.

While armed officers visit rural communities to address serious crimes, they can be hours or days away when something goes wrong.

VPSOs serve as the first line of defense in many rural communities, but they are not allowed to carry firearms.

That has long been a point of contention and has grown into one of the top public safety issues being considered by state lawmakers since Manakotak VPSO Thomas Madole was fatally shot last March.

"There's going to be places that a police officer or VPSO, is going to walk into a family dispute situation, and for this reason, I feel it's appropriate to arm the VPSOs," said Rep. Gabrielle Ledoux, an Anchorage Republican.

While the bill allows the regional corporations that employ VPSOs to arm their officers, it does not mean that every officer will be armed.

"No community would be forced to have an armed VPSO," said Rep. Bryce Edgmon, a Dillingham Democrat who sponsored the proposed legislation. "The bill is designed with the notion that those who desire to have a VPSO, should have the opportunity to have an armed VPSO."

Previous efforts to arm VPSOs fell short in part due to rural concerns that all of the officers would be armed without local feedback from villages.

Moses Owen is a member of the Akiak Tribal Council, and in February he said the key is making sure the community knows and trusts the officer before they are armed.

“We have to make sure these individuals are trained, that they will work with the community and that they won’t use the gun as something that will make them bigger than the members of the community here,” Owen said.

Gov. Sean Parnell, a Republican, supports the proposal along with many members of the Alaska Senate.