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Tennessee lawmakers pass bill to allow armed teachers, a year after deadly Nashville shooting

By Associated Press
Published: April 23, 2024, 4:58pm
2 Photos
Anna Fahrenholz holds signs in the gallery against a bill that would allow some teachers to be armed in schools during a legislative session in the House chamber Tuesday, April 23, 2024, in Nashville, Tenn.
Anna Fahrenholz holds signs in the gallery against a bill that would allow some teachers to be armed in schools during a legislative session in the House chamber Tuesday, April 23, 2024, in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/George Walker IV) Photo Gallery

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Protesters chanted “Blood on your hands” at Tennessee House Republicans on Tuesday after they passed a bill that would allow some teachers and staff to carry concealed handguns on public school grounds, and bar parents and other teachers from knowing who was armed.

The 68-28 vote in favor of the bill sent it to Republican Gov. Bill Lee for consideration. If he signs it into law, it would be the biggest expansion of gun access in the state since last year’s deadly shooting at a private elementary school in Nashville.

Members of the public who oppose the bill harangued Republican lawmakers after the vote, leading House Speaker Cameron Sexton to order the galleries cleared.

Four House Republicans and all Democrats opposed the bill, which the state Senate previously passed. The measure would bar disclosing which employees are carrying guns beyond school administrators and police, including to students’ parents and even other teachers. A principal, school district and law enforcement agency would have to agree to let staff carry guns.

The proposal presents a starkly different response to The Covenant School shooting than Lee proposed last year. Republican legislators quickly cast aside his push to keep guns away from people deemed a danger to themselves or others.

A veto by Lee appears unlikely, since it would be a first for him and lawmakers would only need a simple majority of each chamber’s members to override it.

“What you’re doing is you’re creating a deterrent,” the bill’s sponsor, Republican state Rep. Ryan Williams, said before the vote. “Across our state, we have had challenges as it relates to shootings.”

Republicans rejected a series of Democratic amendments, including parental consent requirements, notification when someone is armed, and the school district assuming civil liability for any injury, damage or death due to staff carrying guns.

“My Republican colleagues continue to hold our state hostage, hold our state at gunpoint to appeal to their donors in the gun industry,” Democratic state Rep. Justin Jones said. “It is morally insane.”

In the chaos after the vote, Democratic and Republican lawmakers accused each other of violating House rules, but only voted to reprimand Jones for recording on his phone. He was barred from speaking on the floor through Wednesday.

It’s unclear if any school districts would take advantage if the bill becomes law. For example, a Metro Nashville Public Schools spokesperson, Sean Braisted, said the district believes “it is best and safest for only approved active-duty law enforcement to carry weapons on campus.”

About half of the U.S. states in some form allow teachers or other employees with concealed carry permits to carry guns on school property, according to the Giffords Law Center, a gun control advocacy group. Iowa’s governor signed a bill that the Legislature passed last week creating a professional permit for trained school employees to carry at schools that protects them from criminal or civil liability for use of reasonable force.

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In Tennessee, a shooter indiscriminately opened fire in March 2023 at The Covenant School — a Christian school in Nashville — and killed three children and three adults before being killed by police.

Despite subsequent coordinated campaigns urging significant gun control measures, lawmakers have largely refused. They dismissed gun control proposals by Democrats and even by Lee during regular annual sessions and a special session, even as parents of Covenant students shared accounts of the shooting and its lasting effects.

Under the bill passed Tuesday, a worker who wants to carry a handgun would need to have a handgun carry permit and written authorization from the school’s principal and local law enforcement. They would also need to clear a background check and undergo 40 hours of handgun training. They couldn’t carry guns at school events at stadiums, gymnasiums or auditoriums.

Tennessee passed a 2016 law allowing armed school workers in two rural counties, but it wasn’t implemented, according to WPLN-FM.

Tennessee Republicans have regularly loosened gun laws, including a 2021 permit-less carry law for handguns backed by Lee.

The original law allowed residents 21 and older to carry handguns in public without a permit. Two years later, Attorney General Jonathan Skrmetti struck a deal amid an ongoing lawsuit to extend eligibility to 18- to 20-year-olds.

Meanwhile, shortly after the shooting last year, Tennessee Republicans passed a law bolstering protections against lawsuits involving gun and ammunition dealers, manufacturers and sellers. Lawmakers and the governor this year have signed off on allowing private schools with pre-kindergarten classes to have guns on campus. Private schools without pre-K already were allowed to decide whether to let people bring guns on their grounds.

They have advanced some narrow gun limitations. One awaiting the governor’s signature would involuntarily commit certain criminal defendants for inpatient treatment and temporarily remove their gun rights if they are ruled incompetent for trial due to intellectual disability or mental illness. Another bill that still needs Senate approval would remove the gun rights of juveniles deemed delinquent due to certain offenses, ranging from aggravated assault to threats of mass violence, until the age of 25.

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