Tenn. lawmakers face reckoning over gun rights in wake of school shooting

Tennessee state Reps. Justin Jones (L), Gloria Johnson (C) and Justin Pearson speak to reporters after meeting with President Joe Biden at the White House on April 24. Jones and Johnson were expelled from the Legislature after a protest at the Capitol urging stricter gun laws. Photo by Chris Kleponis/UPI
1 of 4 | Tennessee state Reps. Justin Jones (L), Gloria Johnson (C) and Justin Pearson speak to reporters after meeting with President Joe Biden at the White House on April 24. Jones and Johnson were expelled from the Legislature after a protest at the Capitol urging stricter gun laws. Photo by Chris Kleponis/UPI | License Photo

May 17 (UPI) -- Weeks after six people, including three children, were killed in a mass shooting at a Nashville school, Tennessee lawmakers are facing a reckoning.

Republicans who dominate the state Legislature were poised to relax gun laws -- including a measure to lower the age for a concealed carry permit to 18 -- before Audrey Hale, 28, stormed into the Covenant School on March 27 and fired 152 rounds.


Since then, such proposals have been tabled. But leaders have also moved to silence those urging new gun restrictions. When three state lawmakers led a protest on the House floor, two of them were expelled. They were quickly reinstated.

Gov. Bill Lee, a Republican who as recently as 2021 supported constitutional carry -- allowing people to openly carry firearms, without a permit -- issued an executive order to strengthen background checks after the shooting. Last week, he announced a special session for August to address gun violence.


"There is broad agreement that action is needed, and in the weeks ahead, we'll continue to listen to Tennesseans and pursue thoughtful, practical measures that strengthen the safety of Tennesseans, preserve Second Amendment rights, prioritize due process protections, support law enforcement and address mental health," Lee said in a statement.

Jonathan Metzl, director of medicine, health and society at Vanderbilt University, said he is "guardedly optimistic" the special session will yield some middle ground.

"Nobody wants what we're seeing now," he told UPI in an interview. "Nobody wants kids to feel unsafe in schools. Covenant School is another example of how a school that had armed guards and locked doors is still not safe. The status quo is unacceptable.

"Tennessee in the 1990s became a model for red state America for healthcare reform," he said. "We can be a model for gun reform, too."

Relaxing gun laws

Metzl said that before the shooting, gun proposals had reached a "low point" in the Legislature: "It had gotten to the point of preposterous."

H.B. 0977 would allow law enforcement officers to carry firearms while consuming alcohol or other controlled substances. H.B. 1158 aimed to lower the age requirement for a concealed carry permit from 21 to 18. H.B. 0977 failed in the Senate Judiciary Committee. H.B. 1158 remains in the air.


John Harris III, executive director of the Tennessee Firearms Association, an ardent advocate of constitutional carry, argues that Tennessee's gun laws are too restrictive.

He calls the governor "extremely weak on Second Amendment issues" and said Lee's call for extreme risk protection orders, also known as red flag laws, is unconstitutional.

Harris has also taken aim at Republican lawmakers for not pursuing relaxed gun laws more aggressively.

"Tennessee flipped from Democrat to Republican in 2010. They campaigned to be strong on the Second Amendment," Harris told UPI. "They have been there 13 years and have been a complete failure in honoring that promise."

Harris said he has been tracking about 70 bills this spring. Beyond constitutional carry, he would like to eliminate gun-free zones and for a criminal immunity law to pass. That can shield gun owners from liability if they use their firearm in self-defense, removing the duty to retreat before using force.

In the case of George Zimmerman, who was acquitted in the killing of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in Florida in 2013, the state's "Stand Your Ground" law was debated, but Zimmerman ultimately did not use it as a defense.

Harris, who has served as executive director of the TFA for 28 years, is an attorney, representing former Hamilton County Sheriff James Hammond and the TFA in a lawsuit against the Metropolitan Government of Nashville and Davidson County to uncover records on the Covenant School shooting. Among the records they are seeking is the manifesto left behind by Hale.


Investigators recovered 30 journals, along with a suicide note and mental health records when executing a search warrant on Hale's home and vehicle. Harris said legislators need to know Hale's motive if they are going to take action directly tied to the shooting.

"There is so much interest in the documents that would shed some light on why [Hale] did this," Harris said. "If it turns out these murders were the result of a personal vendetta, and some killed were collateral damage, then the options have to go in a different direction."

No matter what the records show, Harris does not believe guns are the issue. In fact, Harris does not refer to the issue as "gun violence," just "violence."

"There has been workplace violence that didn't even involve a gun. They went in with a knife," he said. "I don't have the answers. You've got to start trying to break down the causes discreetly, one by one, instead of passing the laws the governor is talking about."

Legal precedent

Harris cited a recent U.S. Supreme Court case, New York State Rifle & Pistol Association vs. Bruen, which he says limits the government's options to restrict access to guns.


"In Bruen, the court said the only options available to the court are those that existed as part of the nation's historical tradition when the Second Amendment was ratified in 1791," he said.

Daniel Kiel, a constitutional law professor at the University of Memphis, said the court's decision did signal that the right to bear arms is protected strongly. However, he added that no individual constitutional right has been interpreted as being absolute.

"That compromise between our individual freedom and our collective willingness to abide by some limits on that freedom is at the heart of constitutional structure," Kiel told UPI.

"I don't think the Second Amendment is exempt from this -- the government should have to explain why if it wants to burden a right, and courts can evaluate whether that explanation justifies the burden. And maybe some, or even many, regulations will be struck down, but that does not make the right an absolute one."

The question on the minds of Tennesseans and the nation at large is whether the interest of public safety is great enough to reform gun laws. Harris does not believe public safety is cause for infringing on his right to bear arms. Metzl said U.S. Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh's opinion in the Bruen case made it clear that public safety must be a consideration.


"I would invite anyone to read the Second Amendment and tell me where it says that you can't protect public safety in the language of that amendment. It is a massive act of projection."

A recent study by the Pew Research Center said firearms are the leading cause of death of children in the United States, the only country in the world where this is so.

Tennessee has the 10th highest death rate from guns in the country, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. High rates of gun deaths have also been correlated with states that have the weakest gun laws.

"It is going to be a very important summer," Metzl said. "The fact that mass shooters are repeatedly getting weapons, sometimes a week or a day before their crimes, legally, makes me think there is a problem in our policy. These are glaring red signs that our policy approach is wrong."

This article has been corrected to reflect that George Zimmerman did not use Florida's "Stand Your Ground" law as a defense in the death of Trayvon Martin.

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