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Tennessee senators won’t hear gun bills in wake of Nashville shooting

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 3/31/2023 Annie Gowen, Justine McDaniel

The deadly shooting in Nashville on Monday hit close to home for the state’s elected officials — it unfolded at a Christian school not far from the Capitol, and the governor’s wife was a longtime friend of two of the victims, including one teacher she was to dine with that night.

But none of that has yet prompted forceful action from Tennessee lawmakers on guns or mental health this week — instead, Republicans in the state Senate appear poised to block gun-related bills for the rest of the year. That would bar passage of new gun measures inspired by the shooting, and efforts previously underway may be held up in their Senate committee.

Two Democratic legislators said they had been told gun-related bills were off the table in the Senate until 2024, and Senate Judiciary Chair Todd Gardenhire (R) confirmed that in an interview with local outlet Tennessee Lookout, saying his committee will not hear anything related to gun bills this year.

“There have been some voices suggesting that we shouldn’t even consider legislation relating to firearms given this week’s tragedy,” state Sen. Jeff Yarbro (D), whose measure to strengthen gun storage requirements now faces uncertainty, told The Washington Post. “I fundamentally reject that notion and don’t understand how we can responsibly call ourselves representatives of citizens and not take this on.”

Tennessee state Sen. Jeff Yarbro (D-Nashville) debates a proposal allowing faith-based adoption agencies to decline to place children with same-sex couples because of their religious belief without facing penalties on Jan. 14, 2020, in Nashville. © Mark Humphrey/AP Tennessee state Sen. Jeff Yarbro (D-Nashville) debates a proposal allowing faith-based adoption agencies to decline to place children with same-sex couples because of their religious belief without facing penalties on Jan. 14, 2020, in Nashville.

Yet as public pressure built throughout the week, legislators and the governor’s office said initial talks were underway to see if Republicans could find a path forward. Hundreds of protesters calling for gun control flooded the state Capitol on Thursday, filling hallways and chanting “Do your job!” at passing lawmakers. In the Senate chamber gallery, some were removed after shouting “Children are dead,” and House proceedings were disrupted by two Democratic lawmakers supporting the protesters, the Associated Press reported.

Few of any political persuasion in Tennessee said they expected meaningful legislative action to emerge in the wake of the tragedy in the deeply conservative state — either in proposals from Democrats advocating greater gun restrictions or from Republicans who continue to blame the country’s mental health crisis for the unrelenting pace of killings.

Requests for comment to multiple Republican legislators by The Post this week were not returned. A person who answered the phone at Gardenhire’s office Thursday morning told a reporter requesting an interview with Gardenhire “that’s not going to be possible.”

Gardenhire told the Lookout, however, that he feared the committee would be “turned into a circus by people with other agendas. The agenda on the table now is respecting the privacy of the victims’ families that were gunned down and let that healing process start.”

House lawmakers still planned to take up outstanding gun bills, said Rep. Clay Doggett (R), the chair of the criminal justice subcommittee. Before the shooting, Republican lawmakers were considering bills that would have lowered the age of permitless carry from 21 to 18 — and in at least one version, expanded that to all weapons, not just handguns — and another measure to arm teachers.

Doggett said the permitless carry bill, which already passed the Senate Judiciary Committee, could still move through both houses this session. But other bills, such as the safe-storage measure, will have no path forward without Senate consideration.

Republican Gov. Bill Lee — who made a law that allows gun owners to carry a loaded handgun without a permit the centerpiece of his agenda in 2021 — has not yet announced any specific proposals to address the tragedy, despite its personal overtones. He said in a video address Tuesday that “there’s more work to do.” But he was not clear on what that would entail.

“We must work to find ways to protect against evil,” the governor said. “There will be a time to talk about the legislation and budget proposals we’ve brought forward this year.”

The stalemate in Tennessee mirrors the national divide between Republicans and Democrats on how to deal with the epidemic of mass killings, with President Biden calling again this week for an assault weapons ban and Republicans reiterating opposition to any restrictions on access to guns.

Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.), a key negotiator of a bipartisan gun-control package that passed last year following the school shooting in Uvalde, Tex., rejected Biden’s plea and other calls for expanded background checks.

“I would say we’ve gone about as far as we can go” on gun control, Cornyn said.

Tennessee is one of the deadliest states for gun violence. It has some of the most lax gun measures in the country and a citizenry less likely to support gun control than many other states, polling shows. Unified Republican control of the legislature and governor’s office has effectively blocked any measures put forth by Democrats.

“It’s a very difficult climate for gun control in Tennessee,” said Linda McFadyen-Ketchum, a volunteer with the Tennessee chapter of Moms Demand Action, a national group advocating restrictions on access to guns. “The Republicans have a supermajority here and they have been hellbent on relaxing our gun laws for years. I don’t think they’re going to have a turnaround just because six people died up the road. I think they will slow down a little bit.”

She said she hoped for a fair hearing on the gun storage measure, which would penalize gun owners for not locking up their firearms in cars or boats or reporting them stolen.

Since taking office in 2019, Lee has focused on “school safety,” taking a variety of steps that his administration says enhance physical security at schools, including promoting an app where parents can report concerns and helping school districts with safety assessments.

Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee (R) delivers his State of the State address in the House Chamber on Feb. 6 in Nashville. © Mark Zaleski/AP Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee (R) delivers his State of the State address in the House Chamber on Feb. 6 in Nashville.

This year, he has proposed putting state homeland security agents in schools and implementing plans to ensure private school guards have active shooter training, doors are locked during school and other steps.

A spokesperson said Lee was discussing school safety with state lawmakers but did not answer questions about what measures Lee supports.

“The Governor and our office have had extensive conversations with members of the General Assembly for months — certainly this week included — about how we can build on the work we’ve already done and expand current proposals to provide as much school safety support as possible. We look forward to continuing those conversations,” spokesperson Jade Byers said in an email to The Post.

Some conservative gun groups have already faulted Lee for not allowing more access to weapons.

John Harris III, the executive director of the Tennessee Firearms Association, said that Lee has been promising to arm teachers in the state for five years. He said he believes there would have been fewer deaths Monday — “hopefully zero deaths” — if teachers or administrators at the school had been able to “resist with firepower” rather than waiting for law enforcement to arrive.

“Has Gov. Bill Lee’s broken campaign promises made schools, faculty and students less safe in Tennessee?” his group posted on Facebook after the shooting, asking why Republican legislators have not done more to arm teachers and back guns on college campuses.

Police have said that Audrey Elizabeth Hale, 28, broke into the private Covenant School in Nashville on Monday armed with two AR-style weapons and a handgun — eventually killing three students and three adults before being slain by police. Authorities said Hale was a former student at the school, but they have not publicly cited a motive for the shooting.

The governor said that his wife, Maria, had been friends with two of the educators who died — Katherine Koonce, 60, the school head, and Cynthia Peak, 61, a substitute teacher — “for decades.” The other victims were Mike Hill, the school’s 61-year-old custodian, and students Evelyn Dieckhaus, William Kinney and Hallie Scruggs, all age 9.

Metropolitan Nashville Police Chief John Drake said Hale had purchased seven guns from five gun stores at some point before the shooting. Hale’s parents told police that Hale was being treated by a doctor for an “emotional disorder” and that they were aware of only one gun, he said. Under their pressure, Hale had sold that weapon, police cited the parents as saying.

Drake noted at the news conference that Tennessee does not have a red-flag law — which allows police under court order to temporarily seize guns from someone considered a danger to themselves or others — so police would not have had the power to take Hale’s weapons away even if Hale had come to their attention. At least 19 states have red-flag laws, but the Tennessee legislature has rebuffed several efforts to craft one. The last effort, in 2022, died in a House subcommittee.

“The policy that is screaming to be enacted right now is a red-flag law that would give us some ability to prevent those in mental health crisis from obtaining or using weapons,” said Yarbro, the state senator.

State Rep. Caleb Hemmer, another Democrat, said he has been in discussions since Monday with Republican leaders and the governor’s office about adding a red-flag amendment and other possible provisions to the bill that would require safe storage of firearms in cars. On Thursday, Lt. Gov. Randy McNally (R) told a local television station that he was open to some version of a red-flag law, but noted he was not speaking for GOP leadership.

Hemmer told The Post it’s “too early to tell” whether there will be a political appetite for such measures in the GOP-controlled legislature. “It’s a very fluid situation.”

“I’m going to see how it will play out, but we’re exploring all options right now,” he added.

Yarbro said the legislature should move forward on the safe-storage measure and explore a red-flag law — but said he was afraid the legislature could push the consideration of any gun legislation to next year.

Given the Republicans’ advantage, some gun-control advocates remain pessimistic that Tennessee will adopt a red-flag measure, even in the wake of the shooting.

The shooter “should not have had a gun,” said McFadyen-Ketchum, of Moms Demand Action. But, she added: “There’s no bill pending. We couldn’t find a Republican sponsor. So, it’s a huge lift. We’ll get there but not this year.”

The safe-storage bill has support from Chief Drake, who in a letter days before the shooting urged the legislature to “help us convince/deter lawful gun owners from leaving firearms unsecured in unattended vehicles.”

Hemmer said he hoped Tennessee lawmakers could look to Florida as an example, citing legislation passed by the Republican-led statehouse establishing a red-flag law and raising the age for purchasing firearms after the 2018 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla.

“That’s what I’m hoping our legislature has the courage to do,” said Hemmer, who belongs to the same church that Dieckhaus, one of the children killed Monday, attended with her family.

Tennessee voters are more conservative about gun control than the national electorate, polls show. In an Associated Press VoteCast poll taken during the state’s gubernatorial race last year, 48 percent of Tennessee voters said they wanted gun laws to be “more strict,” 35 percent said “kept as they are” and 18 percent said “less strict.” Nationally, AP VoteCast found, 53 percent said gun laws should be made more strict, 33 percent said kept as they are and 13 percent said they should be made less strict.

After the Uvalde school shooting, in which a gunman armed with a high-powered weapon shot and killed 19 students and two teachers, a then-Democratic-controlled Congress, with the support of some Republicans, passed the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act that provided funds for mental health treatment and school security, incentives for localities to set up red-flag laws, and closed the “boyfriend loophole,” preventing convicted domestic abusers from accessing firearms.

Tennessee’s Lee, for his part, issued an executive order after Uvalde that resulted in the app that parents can use to report school safety concerns anonymously, physical security assessments for schools, and additional training for 600 school resources officers, he has said.

Critics, however, said Monday’s tragedy showed the state’s school safety measures were not enough. Yarbro, the state senator, questioned Lee’s suggestion Tuesday that it wasn’t the time to discuss gun policy.

“We hear some voices calling this a time for prayer or reflection or study,” he said, “when every parent I know is calling on us to act.”


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