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After calls for gun safety, Tennessee votes to arm teachers

People protest outside the House chamber after legislation passed that would allow some teachers to be armed in schools during a legislative session Tuesday, April 23, 2024, in Nashville, Tenn.
George Walker IV
/
AP
People protest outside the House chamber after legislation passed that would allow some teachers to be armed in schools during a legislative session Tuesday, April 23, 2024, in Nashville, Tenn.

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — In March 2023, an assailant shot and killed three students and three staff members at the Covenant School, a private Christian elementary school in Nashville.

The shooting prompted calls for gun safety legislation. Thousands of people protested outside the Tennessee Capitol calling for universal background checks, safe gun storage laws and accountability for the gun industry.

At the time, it seemed like there was bipartisan support for some type of gun control bill.

Republican Gov. Bill Lee urged lawmakers to pass a red flag law – a measure that would temporarily confiscate guns from people deemed a danger to themselves or others.

"I believe this will protect victims, that it will hold dangerous people accountable and away from firearms," he said at the time.

But the bill was never taken up in 2023. And, during the recently concluded 2024 session, the Republican-led legislature passed bills expanding gun access, instead of restricting it.

The most controversial of the new laws is one allowing teachers to carry a concealed gun in school, after training and approval.

Supporters of the measure argue it will make schools safer by allowing teachers to "deter" shooters. But there's little evidence to show that the policy makes schools safer. And several Tennessee school districts have already announced they won't allow teachers to carry guns.

Arming teachers

Under the new law, a local principal, education commissioner and sheriff must approve before a teacher can carry a firearm in school.

Teachers would have to go through 40 hours of training, pass a psychological evaluation, submit fingerprints and get a handgun permit in order to carry a weapon.

Republican state Rep. Ryan Williams, the bill's sponsor, says armed teachers can make schools safer. During a floor debate, he said if school shooters encounter armed teachers, they might "end up going somewhere else because they're deterred."

Rep. Ryan Williams, R-Cookeville, responds to questions on his bill to allow some teachers to be armed in schools from the House floor during a legislative session Tuesday, April 23, 2024, in Nashville, Tenn.
George Walker IV / AP
/
AP
Rep. Ryan Williams, R-Cookeville, responds to questions on his bill to allow some teachers to be armed in schools from the House floor during a legislative session Tuesday, April 23, 2024, in Nashville, Tenn.

Tennessee joins more than two-thirds of all U.S. states in allowing concealed carry by teachers, with some training and approval. But school safety experts say the measure won't make classrooms safer.

Ken Trump, president of National School Safety and Security Services, says the training and precautions don't go far enough.

"There's a lot more that goes into a public safety function than simply training someone to shoot, clean and holster a gun and some marginal training around that," he said.

Elisa Mula, a security consultant and founder of Moms in Security, says educators shouldn't be asked to multitask as teachers and security officers.

"I think the best thing to do if you're going to introduce any weapons into school...is to do it properly with security professionals that are designated only to handle emergency response," she said.

The new law doesn't require schools to inform parents or other educators if a teacher is armed.

Democratic state Sen. Raumesh Akbari worries about people not knowing who has a gun in school."You will have no idea whether the gun is there or not, who has it or not," said Akbari. "I mean, it's just it's too many unknowns that promote a lack of safety as opposed to safety."

"Getting at the real issue"

The bill allowing teachers to carry concealed firearms came up during the 2023 session too, but it was delayed after lawmakers refused to pass any gun legislation in the immediate aftermath of the Covenant School shooting.

Ahead of this year's vote, nearly 200 Nashville high school students walked out of class to protest at the Tennessee State Capitol.

High School Senior Ella Brinen said expanding where guns can be carried won't make schools safer.

"We do not want guns in school. Guns are the problem. They do not belong there. Students belong there," she said.

Nashville students walked out of class to protest the bill arming teachers outside the Tennessee Capitol.
Blaise Gainey / WPLN
/
WPLN
Nashville students walked out of class to protest the bill arming teachers outside the Tennessee Capitol.

Democratic state Rep. Justin J. Pearson said arming teachers doesn't get at what he believes is the "real issue."

"Each and every one of us will be responsible and accountable for the gun violence that will happen due to this pathetic excuse for dealing with the gun violence epidemic," he said.

Republican lawmakers voted to expel Pearson and Democratic Rep. Justin Jones in 2023 after they disrupted proceedings to show support for protesters pushing for more gun control.

During this year's session, lawmakers also passed a bill requiring schools to teach kids about firearm safety that got bipartisan support.

With nearly half of Tennessee households owning at least one gun, Republican state Rep. Chris Todd said kids should know how to be safe around them.

"By the time they turn eighteen they're probably going to see a firearm and we want to be sure they know exactly what to do," he said.

But for Democratic state Sen. Heidi Campbell, the legislature missed an opportunity to pass more expansive gun safety bills.

"We're not addressing the actual problem and I'm just going to say, it's the guns," said Campbell."

Tennessee lawmakers will be back in 2025 and will likely consider gun bills that didn't make it past the finish line this year, including one to prevent businesses from prohibiting firearms on their property, another would allow long guns to be carried openly.

Copyright 2024 WPLN

Blaise Gainey