Tennessee Senate advances bill to arm teachers 1 year after deadly Nashville school shooting

Republican lawmakers in Tennessee have cleared a significant hurdle toward permitting certain trained teachers and faculty who haven’t worked in law enforcement carry handguns on school grounds

Jonathan Mattise,Kimberlee Kruesi
Tuesday 09 April 2024 22:14 BST
Business Taxes-Tennessee
Business Taxes-Tennessee (Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

Republican lawmakers in Tennessee cleared a significant hurdle Tuesday on a proposal to permit some trained teachers and faculty who haven’t worked in law enforcement to carry handguns on school grounds, a move that would mark one of the state’s biggest expansion of gun access since a deadly elementary school shooting last year.

The proposal cleared the GOP-controlled chamber amid emotional chants and screams from protesters against the legislation, many of who were eventually ordered to leave the Senate galleries after ignoring warnings to remain quiet.

After receiving a 26-5 vote in the Senate, the proposal is now ready for a House floor vote. If enacted, the proposal would bar disclosing which employees are carrying guns, including to parents of students and even other teachers.

“I'm upset. My child is at risk under this bill,” said Democratic state Sen. London Lamar, holding her 8-month-old son in her arms. “This bill is dangerous and teachers don't want it. Nobody wants it.”

Senate Speaker Randy McNally, a Republican, cleared the galleries after many in the audience refused to quiet down even as he gaveled repeatedly them for disrupting the debate. In the nearly 15 minutes it took to remove the audience and continue with the debate, they continued to chant “Vote them out;” “No more silence, end gun violence;” and “Kill the bill, not the kids.”

The heated debate comes almost a year after a shooter indiscriminately opened fire at The Covenant School last March, killing three children and three adults before being fatally shot by police. Yet despite the sweeping, coordinated effort to convince Tennessee's Republican-dominant statehouse to enact significant gun control measures in response to the shooting, lawmakers have largely balked at such calls. They've shut down proposals on the topic by Democrats — and even one by the Republican governor — during regular annual sessions and a special session.

Only a handful of GOP supporters spoke in favor of the bill, taking time to stress that teachers would not be required to be armed and would not be required to use their weapons in active shooter situations.

“We are not trying to shoot a student but protect students,” said Republican state Sen. Ken Yager.

If approved, the bill would allow a school district and a law enforcement agency to strike a written agreement to permit some school staff to carry guns. The worker who wants to carry a handgun would need to have a handgun carry permit, have written authorization from both the school's principal and local law enforcement, clear a background check and undergo 40 hours of handgun training.

“We’re sending teachers to learn how to handle a combat situation that veteran law enforcement have trouble comprehending,” said Democratic state Sen. Jeff Yarbro. “We’re letting people do that with a week’s training,” he said.

The lengthy criteria stands out against Tennessee's GOP push to loosen gun laws over the years, including signing off on permitless carry for handguns in 2021.

Most recently, House, Republicans advanced a proposal out of committee that would expand the state’s permitless carry law to include long guns.

The original law allowed residents 21 and older to carry handguns in public without a permit. Yet two years later, Attorney General Jonathan Skrmetti struck a deal amid an ongoing lawsuit that then allowed 18- to 20-year-olds to carry handguns publicly. The bill approved Monday has been slowly making its way through the statehouse, but still must clear the full House and Senate chambers.

Meanwhile, last year, Tennessee Republicans passed a law bolstering protections against lawsuits involving gun and ammunition dealers, manufacturers and sellers. This year, they are awaiting the governor’s decision on a bill that would allow private schools with pre-kindergarten classes to have guns on campus.

Separately, Republicans are advancing an amendment to the Tennessee Constitution’s “right to keep, bear, and wear arms” that would broaden the right beyond defense and delete a section giving lawmakers the ability “to regulate the wearing of arms with a view to prevent crime.” If approved, that wouldn't be on the ballot until 2026.

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