Bills to let Tennessee teachers and citizens carry guns in schools advance in legislature

Three men wearing uniforms escort a woman from a crowded room.
Tennessee state troopers escort a citizen carrying an anti-gun sign from a legislative hearing room on Tuesday, Aug. 22, 2023, during a special session on public safety. (Courtesy of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America)

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Two bills that would let some teachers and citizens carry handguns in Tennessee public schools cleared a House subcommittee Tuesday, but Senate leaders signaled they’ll work to stymie the proposals in their chamber.

Meanwhile, House Republican leaders continued to crack down on behaviors from gun control advocates deemed as disruptive during the second day of a special legislative session on public safety.

The developments reflected mounting tensions in Tennessee’s splintering gun debate after Gov. Bill Lee called lawmakers back to the Capitol in response to a Nashville school shooting that left six people and the shooter dead — and prompted mass demonstrations from gun control advocates during the legislature’s regular session.

While GOP leaders want to focus this week on juvenile justice and mental health issues, polls show that most Tennessee voters want them to tighten the state’s lax gun laws. However, because of the limited scope of the governor’s proclamation, the legislature won’t take up gun control measures during its special session.

And Lee, whose wife knew two of the adult victims at The Covenant School, where the shooting occurred on March 27, appears to have abandoned his proposal for keeping firearms out of the hands of people having a mental health crisis. Since issuing his proclamation for the special session two weeks ago, he’s had no visible presence at the Capitol and made few public appearances.

A day after the House’s GOP supermajority passed rules that will limit debate, ban signs, and allow fewer members of the public inside the Capitol, state troopers escorted several women holding up paper signs with anti-gun messages from a legislative hearing room. Minutes later, troopers cleared the packed room of everyone but lawmakers, staff, and media after a handful of people ignored several warnings against clapping during committee business.

“Everything feels really raw right now,” said Linda McFadyen-Ketchum, a retired teacher and leader with her Nashville-area chapter of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America.

“People are angry and frightened,” she said, especially over any notion that the solution to gun violence is more guns.

Proposals would put more guns in schools

Both GOP-sponsored bills that advanced in the House Civil Justice Subcommittee would open the door to people other than law enforcement officers having guns in schools.

One measure would let a teacher or school staff member carry a concealed handgun after completing 40 hours of certified training in school policing at their own expense, as well as passing a mental health evaluation and FBI background check. 

It would be up to the local district whether to let employees carry firearms under the legislation sponsored by Rep. Ryan Williams of Cookeville and Sen. Paul Bailey of Sparta. 

But the school’s parents and students would not have to be notified under this legislation, which runs counter to the GOP’s emphasis on parental rights and notification in other areas of education, such as curriculum and library materials

A second bill would allow a person with an enhanced permit, which requires eight hours of training, to carry a handgun openly or concealed in any K-12 public school building, campus, or bus. The proposal also would apply to law enforcement officers and military personnel, whether on duty, off duty, or retired.

The bill, sponsored by Bailey in the Senate and Rep. Chris Todd of Jackson, is opposed by Lee’s administration, which budgeted an extra $140 million this spring to place a full-time, armed officer in every public school in the state, beginning this school year.

Todd countered that many schools still don’t have SROs because of a shortage of law enforcement officers. And he noted that private schools already can set policies so that some employees carry handguns.

Several citizens spoke against any measures that would place additional burdens on teachers.

Sarah Shoop Neumann, a parent at The Covenant School, said she believes the tragedy would have been worse if teachers had focused on anything but keeping students safe in their classrooms as the shooter walked the hallways. 

Sarah Shoop Neumann, joined by other parents at The Covenant School in Nashville, speaks during a press conference on the steps of the Tennessee State Capitol on Aug. 21, 2023. (Marta W. Aldrich / Chalkbeat)

Fighting back tears, she recounted conversations with Covenant teachers who described how their hands shook while they worked to keep their students quiet, hidden, and secure.

“They are heroes,” she said. “They enacted every protocol in place perfectly, and they could not have done those things if they were also meant to be armed and go out and attack the shooter.”

More votes are scheduled

Both House bills are scheduled to be taken up Wednesday in the Civil Justice Committee. But their path in the Senate looks harder, judging by the actions and comments of several GOP leaders in that chamber. 

The Senate Judiciary Committee was scheduled to take up the Senate version of Todd’s bill on Tuesday, but didn’t vote on it. The committee, chaired by Todd Gardenhire of Chattanooga, passed only three of 55 bills on its calendar before adjourning.

The bills must clear committees chaired by Sens. Todd Gardenhire and Jon Lundberg (front left). (Marta W. Aldrich / Chalkbeat)

In the days after the Covenant shooting, Gardenhire said he would defer any action on gun-related legislation until next year.

The Senate version of Williams’ bill — to let some teachers carry firearms — is scheduled for a vote Wednesday in the Senate Education Committee.

But on Tuesday, Sen. Jon Lundsberg of Bristol, who chairs the panel, indicated he would vote against it.

Any bills to allow guns in schools “require a great deal of input from multiple stakeholders,” he told Chalkbeat. “I believe they would require several weeks of testimony and input.”

Currently, special session business is scheduled through Thursday, although leaders could extend it several more days.

Also Tuesday, three bills to create so-called extreme risk protection orders failed in the same House subcommittee where members of the public were kicked out. Those bills, sponsored by Democratic Rep. Bob Freeman of Nashville, would allow courts to order temporary removal of firearms from people at risk of hurting themselves or others.

Authorities said the 28-year-old shooter at the Covenant School was seeing a doctor for an “emotional disorder” and had legally obtained multiple weapons. 

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

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