As the national conversation turns to how to curb gun violence and who should have access to assault weapons, some state senators are sketching out ideas to make guns more commonplace in Tennessee.
Their idea of reasonable legislation is to ensure every school has someone in on the premises trained and carrying a gun or give teachers or other staff the ability to carry on campus if their school lacks someone else who does.
“All back through civilized history, there’s been a danger to children,” said East Tennessee state Sen. Frank Niceley, who plans to file one such bill. “We don’t have to worry about saber-toothed tigers any more, but there’s always a danger for children.”
Since 2009, Tennessee has led the country in the number of gun laws it’s passed. Most make it easier to carry and own a gun, while a few others make firearms harder to track.
But by and large, few on Capitol Hill think the brutal school slaying of 20 first-graders and six school staff in Newtown, Conn., will disrupt the pace of expanding gun laws here.
In the past four years, the newly emboldened Republican-led legislature expanded the state’s gun laws. The most noteworthy was in 2010 when the state allowed handgun-carry permit holders to take their weapon with them into a bar on the condition they don’t drink. In 2009, handgun-carry permit holders were allowed to go armed into more than 50 state parks and 80 natural state areas.
But the state also sports one of the highest gun death rates in the country, according to the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence. The Volunteer State rate ranks eighth in the nation with 966 deaths in 2009, and its gun laws earned an F grade from the center.
It takes passing a background check to legally buy a gun in Tennessee, although little else. Permits or licenses are necessary only if the gun owner wants to carry the weapon. Guns don’t need to be registered, people are not required to report if their gun goes missing, and there’s no limit to how many guns someone can purchase, according to the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation.
Just under one in 10 Tennessee adults have a handgun-carry permit in Tennessee, according to an analysis of state handgun-carry records.
Tennesseans as a whole say they’re not terribly interested in prioritizing gun legislation this year, according to a survey by Vanderbilt University released two days before the shooting. But while officials were still ironing out details about the victims, the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation had performed nearly 10,000 background checks, marking it as a potential record weekend for gun sales.
As the number of gun bills making it into the books slowed last year, gun rights advocates have begun to ratchet up pressure on lawmakers to pull the trigger more often.
Gun rights advocates say this month’s shooting probably won’t change their legislative package of prized bills they’d like written into law. But the shooting highlights a need to put guns into the hands of people who know how to use them, the executive director of the Tennessee Firearms Association contends.
“It’s the entire loss of opportunity to even intercede,” said John Harris, who runs the TFA. “Even saving one or two would be better than the total loss.”
“Every year we have a mass shooting, these issues come up about, do we need to reinstate assault weapons ban, do we need to make it tougher to buy a gun, do we need one gun a month, all kinds of these restrictions on access,” said Harris. “What that does is very little to really get them out of the hands of people with mental instabilities. And I’m not sure there’s a good way to stop that. ... If you want a gun, you can go to any shady part of town and buy it stolen.”
The TFA is gearing up to go into next year’s legislative session demanding lawmakers allow gun owners to lock their weapons in their vehicles parked on employer property. Strife over that idea’s failure earlier this year turned into a showdown between gun advocates and Republicans, who were trying to protect the business lobby that wants final say on what weapons can sit on their property.
While both Republican speakers say the issue is low on their list of priorities, they have both seen the writing on the wall that the National Rifle Association and TFA are willing to throw their financial weight behind defeating high-ranking members who block their bills.
That was the story of the year this election cycle as the NRA made an example out of high-ranking House Republican Debra Maggart by independently spending some $50,000 to convince voters to throw her out of office for playing a part in the bill’s failure. They replaced her with Rep. Courtney Rogers, who accepted the gun lobby’s help as she was swept into office.
Lawmakers generally say they don’t expect the massacre at Newtown’s Sandy Hook Elementary School to have much effect on the shape and passage of that issue this year. If anything, they said it crystallizes that the decision needs to be taken carefully.
But Rogers, who benefited from more than $102,000 in total donations and independent spending from the NRA and TFA to defeat Maggart, wouldn’t comment on that.
“Funerals are still taking place. Our Nation is grieving. There will be a time for public debate about our gun laws,” she said in an emailed statement. “I personally choose to delay my input into those discussions until after the Christmas and New Year’s Holidays.”
While leading lawmakers have all but promised to pass some form of guns-in-parking-lots this year, details like whether to allow those guns on campus parking lots are still up in the air.
Beyond the NRA’s signature bill, lawmakers are planning other ways to respond to this month’s shooting spree.
Niceley, the senator from Strawberry Plains, is filing a bill that would require a trained school resource officer in each school — including elementary schools — to carry a loaded weapon to protect against possible intruders. In the event the school can’t afford to pay for one, a janitor, principal or other staff member could fill the role, assuming they’ve had training in protecting others.
Knoxville Sen. Stacey Campfield has a broader plan to add teachers to the mix.
Both House Speaker Harwell and Gov. Bill Haslam, who said they’ve realized a new need to beef up safety in schools, say they’re not fans of asking anyone to teach while packing heat.
“I think it would be asking way too much of our teachers for them to be armed in a classroom, and I’m not in favor of going down that route,” she told reporters. “I really think you really have to be highly qualified to handle a gun in a high stress situation, which is in fact what that was.”
Haslam was less committal to his opposition, saying, “There’s just a lot of questions around that to me in terms of how would that work.” He added that he expects most teachers wouldn’t want to be armed.
In Metro schools, at least one city police officer is already stationed in each middle and high school, and some have more.
The answer isn’t doing away with all guns, said Mike Turner, the House Democratic Caucus chairman who said he owns several although he doesn’t feel much of a need to carry them outside his property. But he said gun advocates can go too far.
“If you’re going to do that, you need to arm the janitors. And why don’t you arm all the school kids. I mean, how crazy can you get,” he quipped.
The TFA may not be running to put guns in children’s backpacks, but Harris said it has long been the groups’ desire to see students learn about guns in the school, much like how they offer driver’s training classes.
The gun lobby has turned into something of an industry. Instead of widgets, it needs to keep pumping out gun bills, and there’s no satisfying the gun lobby’s thirst to crank out more, Turner said.
“And so as soon as they get guns in trunks done, there will have to be another issue. And another issue and another issue, just to keep this machine fueled,” he said.