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Bill to let some teachers and school employees carry guns heads to Tennessee governor’s desk, despite protests

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Protesters screamed “blood on your hands!” then lay down on the floor of the Tennessee State Capitol as if they were victims of gun violence, after lawmakers passed legislation Tuesday to let some teachers and staff carry guns at school.

In between, House Speaker Cameron Sexton paused business in the House of Representatives and ordered state troopers to clear the spectator gallery of protesters.

The 68-28 vote came one year after an intruder shot and killed three children and three adults at a Nashville school, prompting mass protests by gun control advocates and ongoing calls for tighter gun laws.

But instead of restricting gun access in one of America’s most gun-friendly states, the GOP-controlled legislature is sending Republican Gov. Bill Lee a bill that would expand it.

Gun control advocates were angry.

“They’re going in the wrong direction,” said Marley Mello, a 15-year-old Nashville student. “Guns are the problem, not the solution.”

Lisa Bruce, a retired Tennessee principal, called it a “Band-Aid to cover a gaping wound.”

“I could maybe get on board with it if we were already doing common sense measures to reduce gun violence in our state,” she said. “But this feels like a huge leap.”

After the bill’s passage, students shout in protest in the rotunda of the Tennessee State Capitol. (Marta W. Aldrich / Chalkbeat)

The bill’s Republican sponsors have said the legislation is needed to provide an armed presence on every Tennessee school campus, especially in rural areas. Nearly a third of the state’s 1,800-plus public schools don’t have a school resource officer, despite an influx of state money to pay for them, due to a shortage in the profession.

On the House floor, Rep. Ryan Williams, of Cookeville, emphasized that carrying a gun would be voluntary, and allowed only if the local school district and law enforcement agencies agree to the policy. The school employee carrying the gun would have to have an enhanced permit, complete 40 hours of certified training in school policing at their own expense, and pass a mental health evaluation and FBI background check.

Republican lawmakers voting for the measure liked that local officials ultimately could decide whether the policy works for their community.

“I trust my local law enforcement. I trust my director of schools. I trust my teacher,” said Rep. Brock Martin, of Huntingdon.

But Democrats said the effort was misguided, shortsighted, and dangerous.

“We’re going to give somebody a little pop gun to go against a weapon of war. It does not work, folks,” said Rep. Bo Mitchell, of Nashville.

Tennesseans would be better served, Democrats argued, if the legislature passed laws requiring safe storage of firearms and background checks, as well as to temporarily remove guns from any person who is an imminent risk to themselves or others — all proposals that have been defeated by Republicans in charge.

The vote came after an hour of debate in which Democrats tried unsuccessfully to change the bill to exclude their counties, ensure parents are notified when their child’s teacher is armed, or remove a clause that shields districts and law enforcement agencies from civil lawsuits over how a school employee uses, or doesn’t use, a gun.

On Monday, one parent at Nashville’s Covenant School, where the shooting occurred on March 27, 2023, delivered a petition signed by more than 5,000 Tennesseans asking lawmakers to vote the bill down.

“While we all want safe schools and an end to gun violence, arming teachers with guns is not the way,” wrote Sarah Shoop Neumann, whose 5-year-old son was enrolled in Covenant’s preschool.

Another Covenant parent, Mary Joyce, called the bill “ludicrous.”

“Had my daughter’s teacher left the classroom to pursue the shooter, a classroom of 9-year-olds would have been left to protect themselves,” Joyce said.

Jeff Bledsoe, the executive director of the Tennessee Sheriffs’ Association, told Chalkbeat he expects few teachers to carry a gun if the bill becomes law. More likely candidates, he said, are school staff members who have a military or law enforcement background.

His organization opposed the legislation in 2019 when Williams sponsored a similar bill. However, it is neutral on the current bill after working with the sponsors to add more requirements before a person can carry a weapon at school.

Two weeks earlier, the bill easily cleared the Senate, where spectators also were ejected from the gallery after defying warnings from Lt. Gov. Randy McNally to stay quiet.

The governor has signaled he likely will sign the measure into law.

“I’ve said for many years that I’m open to the idea, but the particulars are important,” he told reporters last week.

An advocate for parental rights, the governor declined to comment on the bill’s intent to block a parent from being notified if their child’s teacher is carrying a gun.

Marta Aldrich is a senior correspondent and covers the statehouse for Chalkbeat Tennessee. Contact her at maldrich@chalkbeat.org.

Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools.

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