The latest U.S. school massacre has advocates of stronger gun restrictions criticizing Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee anew for signing a bill last year that allows most adults to carry a handgun without a permit.
Hours after a gunman wearing body armor and carrying an assault rifle murdered 19 children and two adults at an elementary school in Texas, Lee tweeted that he and his wife, Maria, were “mourning the loss of innocent lives” and praying for their families.
Hundreds of people “liked” the Republican governor’s tweet, while dozens of others noted in their replies that Lee has advanced policies to expand gun access in Tennessee.
“You signed a law last year allowing people 21 and older to carry handguns openly or concealed without a permit, a law that was opposed by law enforcement groups here,” wrote Indira Dammu, an education policy analyst who advised former Nashville Mayor David Briley on education matters.
“You should be praying that a TN elementary school isn’t the next tragedy,” added Jenn Foley, who chairs the Democratic Party in Williamson County. “Prayers do nothing but policy & laws can prevent a tragedy.”
Asked Wednesday about the pushback, Lee press secretary Casey Black said the governor is “committed to ensuring schools are secured for the safety of students and teachers.” She noted that, in 2019, he doubled the state’s annual investment in school safety funding and established a grant program to increase the number of schools with law enforcement officers on site.
But the social media messages reflect a familiar impasse over gun violence in America, with GOP leaders offering prayers for victims after mass shootings and emphasizing investments in building security, while critics plead for stricter firearms policies such as required background checks and assault weapon bans.
Meanwhile, more Americans are buying weapons and gun violence is on the rise across the nation. Homicides were up 30 percent in 2020, the largest annual recorded increase in a century, with more than three-quarters of them involving firearms, mostly handguns.
Tennessee has one of the nation’s highest rates of gun deaths, including murders, suicides and accidental shootings. But the state has loosened restrictions on gun ownership since 2019 under Lee’s leadership. Last year, it joined more than a dozen other states that allow most adults 21 and older to carry handguns without first clearing a background check, obtaining a permit, or getting trained on firearms safety.
The gunman in Tuesday’s mass shooting in Uvalde, Texas, had just turned 18 and legally purchased several weapons and scores of rounds of ammunition. According to early news reports, he carried an assault-style rifle into Robb Elementary School and wore a tactical vest that holds extra ammunition.
Tennessee does not prohibit the purchase of assault-style weapons, which are designed for military use – an issue raised by Democratic Rep. John Ray Clemmons at a news conference Wednesday in Nashville
“Enough is enough,” said Clemmons. “There are evidence-based, proven measures we can enact to save lives and prevent tragedies.”
He urged the governor to convene a special legislative session to address gun violence, which he called a “public health crisis,” and for Tennessee officials not to attend the National Rifle Association’s annual meeting this weekend in Houston.
Tennessee has not experienced deadly mass school shootings, but has had numerous school-related shootings and deaths.
Last week in Murfreesboro, south of Nashville, an 18-year-old alumnus of Riverdale High School was shot and killed during an altercation after graduation ceremonies.
In Memphis last October, three teens and an adult were hurt in a shooting near Kingsbury Middle School. A month earlier in the city, a 13-year-old boy was accused of shooting a fellow student inside Cummings Elementary School and later pleaded guilty to attempted first-degree murder.
And last spring in Knoxville, police shot and killed a 17-year-old student in a restroom at Austin East Magnet High School after responding to a report of a possible gunman. It was the fourth shooting death in a year involving students at the school.
Despite the surge in violence, Republican House Speaker Cameron Sexton said Wednesday he does not think gun access is the problem.
“All these things are tragedies. It still takes an individual to take a gun and pull the trigger to make it go off,” said Sexton, citing the presence of campus law enforcement officers and better school building safety equipment and protocols as bigger needs.
Tennessee poured millions of dollars into fortifying its campuses after a shooter killed 17 people at a high school in Parkland, Florida, in 2018. Then-Gov. Bill Haslam, another Republican, ordered a comprehensive security review of more than 1,800 public schools and also provided districts with $35 million in safety grants, mostly to improve their aging school buildings with upgrades like installing security cameras, beefing up front entrances, and fixing or replacing broken locks or outdated doors.
Lee, who was endorsed by the National Rifle Association in the 2018 gubernatorial race, said during his campaign that he supported legislation to allow Tennesseans to carry a firearm without having to obtain a permit and to arm teachers with weapons. Several legislative proposals to let teachers go armed at school failed to gain traction in recent years, but the state is still considered among the nation’s most gun-friendly.
Last fall, gun manufacturer Smith & Wesson announced plans to relocate its headquarters to Tennessee from Massachusetts, where company officials feared legislative proposals could prohibit them from manufacturing certain weapons.
This year, Tennessee’s GOP-controlled legislature overwhelmingly confirmed Lee’s appointment of Knoxville businessman Jordan Mollenhour, who owns online ammo retailer Lucky Gunner, to the state Board of Education, which creates policies for the state’s K-12 public schools. Mollenhour’s company has been sued for selling ammunition to the 17-year-old shooter who killed 10 at a high school in Santa Fe, Texas, in 2018.
(Marta W. Aldrich is a senior correspondent who covers the statehouse for Chalkbeat Tennessee. Contact her at [email protected])