With Nashville school shooting fresh, Tennessee Senate panel defers gun bills until 2024

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A day after thousands of Nashville students marched on the Tennessee State Capitol demanding urgent action to restrict guns, a key legislative committee voted instead to defer action on any gun-related legislation until next year.

The move in the Senate Judiciary Committee came eight days after a 28-year-old shooter killed six people, including three children, at a small private Christian school in Nashville.

The 7-2 vote, spearheaded by Chairman Todd Gardenhire of Chattanooga, came along party lines in the Republican-controlled panel.

The delay was anticipated after Gardenhire told Tennessee Lookout recently that he planned to move for an extended delay and would not allow the committee to 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 (to) let that healing process start,” Gardenhire told the news organization.

Gun control advocates, however, suggested that any delay would be an affront to the memories of the six victims of the March 27 shooting: 9-year-old students Evelyn Dieckhaus, William Kinney, and Hallie Scruggs; and school staff members Mike Hill, Katherine Koonce, and Cynthia Peak.

“We don’t need a day to mourn. We need a day of action,” said retired teacher Linda McFadyen-Ketchum, who leads the local chapter of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, at one of several demonstrations near the Capitol since the shooting.

The Judiciary Committee already had passed a bill that would drop Tennessee’s legal age to carry a gun from 21 to 18. The Senate panel removed a provision, which is still in the House’s version, to apply the legislation to rifles as well as handguns. 

Among the deferred bills are several opposed by gun control advocates, as well as some legislation they support.

One bill would arm public school teachers and staff with a concealed handgun if they are willing, have a state-issued permit, and complete firearms training. Staff at Tennessee’s private schools already have that option if their administrators approve.

Gun control advocates support a so-called safe storage bill requiring people to secure any weapons they leave in vehicles and boats as a way to keep them from falling into the hands of criminals. That measure was deferred, too.

Sen. Jeff Yarbro, the bill’s sponsor, had planned Tuesday to introduce new legislation to the Senate panel to create a so-called red flag law, similar to the one that passed in Florida after a 2018 shooting killed 17 students and staff at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

Such laws create a process to petition the courts so police can step in and temporarily take away firearms from a person who threatens to commit suicide or kill others.

“Pathetic,” Yarbro tweeted after the committee’s vote to defer all the bills. 

The Nashville Democrat added: “We’re not going to give up. We’ll do what we can to bring SB1029 or some other bill to the floor to move this legislation forward.”

Lt. Gov. Randy McNally, who leads the Senate and said last week that he would support a red flag law, left an open door. 

“Chairman Gardenhire and the Judiciary Committee elected to roll a handful of bills to the beginning of next year, as is their prerogative,” McNally said in a statement. “While the committee will likely close today, this does not mean the committee cannot reopen at the call of the chair.”

The committee’s vote came after little discussion. Two Memphis Democrats, Sens. Sara Kyle and London Lamar, were the sole votes against a delay in hearing Yarbro’s bill. 

“Every member has a right to be heard,” Lamar said. “This was a bad move, and I’m disappointed.”

Vanderbilt University student Helena Spigner was also mostly disappointed in Tuesday’s developments. A local leader of Students Demand Action, which helped organize Monday’s student walkout in Nashville, the 19–year-old does not favor arming teachers. But she had hoped lawmakers would show a sense of urgency to reevaluate Tennessee’s lax gun laws because of last week’s mass shooting.

“These deaths could have been prevented by better laws,” said Spigner, who is studying to be an elementary school teacher. “By taking a year off, we’re waiting for the next tragedy, when we should be preventing the next tragedy.”

Interest in a red flag law rose in Tennessee after police reported that the Covenant shooter, who was fatally shot by police 14 minutes after entering the school, had been under a doctor’s care for an undisclosed “emotional disorder.”

While the Senate’s speaker was supportive of the policy, House Speaker Cameron Sexton has been less interested. He initially said “everything” was on the table in the wake of the tragedy but told reporters Monday that red flag laws are just a way “to take away guns” and have “nothing to do with (mental health) treatment.”

As he brought forth his new proposals Monday that include further fortifying school campuses, Gov. Bill Lee also stopped short of supporting a red flag law. He invited lawmakers to bring him legislation that would prevent people who are in the midst of a mental health crisis from having access to weapons, as long as the measure would not impede Second Amendment rights.

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

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