Tennessee lawmakers pass bill to arm teachers

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Protesters chanted “Blood on your hands” at Tennessee House Republicans Tuesday after they passed a bill that would allow some teachers and staff to carry concealed handguns on public school grounds, and parents and other teachers to deny access to know who was armed.

The 68-28 vote in favor of the bill sent it to Republican Gov. Bill Lee for consideration. If he signs it into law, it would be the largest expansion of gun access in the state since last year deadly shooting at a private elementary school in Nashville.

Members of the public opposed to the bill addressed Republican lawmakers after the vote, leading House Speaker Cameron Sexton to order the galleries to be cleared.

Four Republicans in the House of Representatives and all Democrats opposed the bill, which previously passed the Senate. The measure bans disclosing which employees carry weapons beyond school administrators and police, including to students' parents and even other teachers. A principal, a school district and a law enforcement agency would have to agree to allow staff to carry weapons.

The proposal offers a very different response to the shooting at The Covenant School than Lee proposed last year. Republican lawmakers quickly pushed aside his push to keep guns away from people considered a danger to themselves or others.

A veto from Lee seems unlikely, as it would be a first for him and lawmakers would only need a simple majority of members from each chamber to override the veto.

“What you're doing is creating a deterrent,” the bill's sponsor, Republican state Rep. Ryan Williams, said before the vote. “Across our state, we have had challenges when it comes to shootings.”

Republicans rejected a series of Democratic amendments, including requirements for parental consent, reporting when someone is armed, and making the school district civilly liable for injury, damage or death resulting from staff carrying weapons.

“My Republican colleagues continue to hold our state hostage and at gunpoint to appeal to their gun industry donors,” said Democratic state Rep. Justin Jones. “It's morally insane.”

In the chaos after the vote, Democratic and Republican lawmakers accused each other of violating House rules but voted only to reprimand Jones for answering his phone. He was not allowed to speak on the floor until Wednesday.

It's unclear whether school districts would benefit if the bill becomes law. For example, Sean Braisted, spokesperson for Metro Nashville Public Schools, said the district believes “it is best and safest for only approved active-duty law enforcement officers to carry weapons on campus.”

About half of U.S. states allow teachers or other employees with concealed carry permits to carry weapons on school grounds, according to the Giffords Law Center, a gun control advocacy group. The governor of Iowa signed a bill that the Legislature passed last week to create a professional license for trained school personnel to carry into schools, protecting them from criminal or civil liability for the use of reasonable force.

In Tennessee, a gunman indiscriminately open fire in March 2023 at The Covenant School – a Christian school in Nashville – and killed three children and three adults before being killed by police.

Despite subsequent coordinated campaigns pushing for significant gun control measures, lawmakers have largely refused. They rejected gun control proposals from Democrats and even by Lee during regular annual sessions and a special session, even as parents of Covenant students shared stories about the shooting and its lasting effects.

Under the bill passed Tuesday, an employee who wants to carry a gun would need a permit to carry a gun and written permission from the school principal and local law enforcement authorities. They would also have to pass a background check and undergo 40 hours of pistol training. They were not allowed to carry weapons at school events in stadiums, gymnasiums or auditoriums.

Tennessee passed a law in 2016 allowing armed school workers in two rural counties, but it was not implemented. according to WPLN-FM.

Tennessee Republicans have regularly relaxed gun laws, including a 2021 one transport without a permit handgun law supported by Lee.

The original law allowed residents 21 and older to carry handguns in public without a permit. Two years later, Attorney General Jonathan Skrmetti struck a deal during an ongoing lawsuit to expand the right to 18- to 20-year-olds.

Meanwhile, shortly after the shooting last year, Tennessee Republicans passed a law that strengthens protection against lawsuits involving arms and ammunition dealers, manufacturers and sellers. Lawmakers and the governor this year signed off on allowing private schools with kindergarten classes to have guns on campus. Private schools without pre-K were already allowed to decide whether they allowed people to bring weapons onto their premises.

They have put forward some limited gun restrictions. One that awaits the governor's signature would the involuntary commission of certain criminal suspects for inpatient treatment and temporarily revoke their gun rights if they are declared incompetent to stand trial due to intellectual disability or mental illness. Another bill that still needs Senate approval would eliminate gun rights for youths considered delinquent for certain crimes, ranging from aggravated assault to threats of mass violence, up to age 25.

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