After Mass Shootings, Republicans Expand Access to Guns

Gun Rights

In states around the country, Republican lawmakers are pushing laws to expand the ability to own and carry firearms.

After a mass shooting at an elementary school in Texas last year prompted calls for new gun restrictions, Republican-led states around the country moved in the other direction. One of them was Tennessee, where the governor insisted that tighter firearms laws would never deter wrongdoers.

“We can’t control what they do,” Gov. Bill Lee said.

Tennessee lawmakers have instead moved to make firearms even more accessible, proposing bills this year to arm more teachers and allow college students to carry weapons on campus, among other measures.

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Then came the attack on Monday at the Covenant School in Nashville, where a shooter carrying multiple weapons killed six people, including three children. The same day, a federal judge signed off on a state settlement allowing people as young as 18 to carry a handgun without a permit.

Amid the ghastly cadence of multiple mass shootings that have prompted calls for more comprehensive controls on guns, Republicans in statehouses have been steadily expanding access to guns.

In Kentucky, Ohio, Nebraska, Texas and Virginia, Republicans have pushed this year to limit gun-free zones, remove background checks and roll back red-flag laws that seek to remove firearms from those who are a danger to themselves or others.

“I think it’s gotten progressively worse over the years,” North Carolina’s Democratic governor, Roy Cooper, said in an interview. On Wednesday, the Republican-controlled Legislature in his state overrode his veto and eliminated a century-old pistol permitting system.

In 25 states, no permits are required to carry a handgun — nine more than in 2020.

Gov. Bill Lee of Tennessee delivered his State of the State address last month in Nashville. Mark Zaleski/Associated Press

“That has been the most rapid expansion of gun rights at the state level that we have seen,” said Jacob Charles, an associate professor who specializes in firearms law at the Pepperdine Caruso School of Law.

Perhaps nowhere represents the shift to expand gun access more than Tennessee, a state at the crossroads of Appalachia, the upper South and lower Midwest whose politics on guns typify Red America’s rapid movement rightward on gun regulations.

In recent years, Republicans in the Tennessee State Legislature — a 20-minute drive from the site of this week’s mass shooting — have passed a series of measures that have weakened regulations, eliminating some permit requirements and allowing most residents to carry loaded guns in public, open or concealed, without a permit, training or special background checks.

The decisions came even after a representative of the Tennessee Sheriffs’ Association rose at a legislative hearing to oppose the permitting measure, saying it would make knowing whether a person was unlawfully carrying a weapon more difficult for law enforcement.

Jerry Sexton, then a Republican state representative, accused him of wanting “to infringe upon the rights of us as a people.”

“I am offended by the fact that you are doing this,” Mr. Sexton said. “I say that you need to back off and let citizens be citizens.”

Community members prayed by a makeshift memorial for the victims of the Covenant School shooting outside of the Covenant Presbyterian Church on Wednesday.Desiree Rios/The New York Times

Republican leaders around the country have rushed to burnish their firearms credentials, mindful that even the suggestion they are not all-in on gun rights could have political consequences.

A congressman in Georgia ran for the office in 2020 with yard signs featuring an AR-15 rifle. Former President Donald J. Trump made a point of appearing in person at the National Rifle Association convention in Houston in May, not long after the school shooting in Uvalde. Other candidates have repeatedly been using guns in television ads.

Representative Andy Ogles, a Republican whose district includes the Covenant School where this week’s mass shooting took place, posted a Christmas photo of his family posing with rifles in 2021. The photo drew criticism this week in the aftermath of the killings.

“Why would I regret a photograph with my family exercising my rights to bear arms?” he said.

Missouri last year enacted a measure that made it illegal for local law enforcement to cooperate with federal authorities in many gun investigations. A federal judge earlier this month struck down the law as unconstitutional.

The National Rifle Association remains a potent force on the right despite a recent drop in fund-raising, amid questions about the lavish spending habits of its senior leadership in the Beltway. And the gun rights movement itself has become both more diffuse and influential, with local groups — including the Gun Owners of America and the conservative Dorr brothers network in the Midwest — gaining a following, and pressuring Republican state lawmakers from the right.

In the Nashville killing, the parents of the shooter — identified by police as Audrey E. Hale — had reported that their child was under doctors’ care and “should not own weapons,” said Chief John Drake of the Nashville Metro Police Department. The shooter had purchased seven firearms from five local gun stores and then used three of them during the attack.

The Republican initiatives have not been limited to statehouses. In Congress, the same day as the Tennessee shooting, the House Judiciary Committee chairman, Jim Jordan, an Ohio Republican, postponed a hearing where he planned to make the case for a Republican bill to outlaw one of the modest regulatory efforts undertaken by the Biden administration, a requirement to register so-called stabilizing braces that allow semiautomatic pistols to be propped against the shoulder for easier, more focused firing.

Images of the weapons used in the Nashville shooting appeared to show that the killer owned such a brace and might have used it in the attack, according to law enforcement officials. It would not have been illegal to possess one — owners of the braces have until the end of May to register their weapons and pay a $200 fee to comply with the change.

“Democrats were going to turn this tragic event into a political thing,” Mr. Jordan told reporters at the Capitol on Monday night. He said he had no plans to withdraw the measure or to slow his push to loosen gun laws.

On Wednesday, Republicans in North Carolina overrode Gov. Roy Cooper’s veto, eliminating a century-old pistol permitting system.Karl B Deblaker/Associated Press

One of Tennessee’s senators, Marsha Blackburn, made no mention of gun control ideas but called on Congress to find ways to increase security in schools.

Gov. Lee vowed to “act to prevent this from happening again” in Tennessee, but did not offer any specifics on how he planned to do so. A key committee in the state General Assembly decided to postpone the consideration of any bills relating to guns until next week, with State Senator Todd Gardenhire, a Chattanooga Republican, saying, “We need to be respectful of those victims and the families of the victims.”

Researchers examining the impact of mass shootings on gun policy found a few years ago that states with Republican-controlled legislatures were more likely to loosen gun laws in the year after a mass shooting in their state than in other years.

States led by Democrats have long been pursuing more stringent gun control measures.

In Connecticut after the school shooting in Newtown in 2012, state lawmakers expanded an assault weapons ban, banned high-capacity magazines and implemented universal background checks. Oregon voters last year approved a sweeping gun control measure, which requires gun purchasers to get a permit and take a gun safety course, that is currently being challenged in court.

Other measures under consideration this year include efforts in Minnesota to make it easier to take guns from people deemed to be a threat, a plan in Oregon to ban untraceable guns that are assembled at home and a bill in Michigan to penalize those who leave guns in places accessible to children.

State Representative Bo Mitchell, a Democrat from Nashville, has been outspoken about his opposition to various bills currently under review in the Tennessee Legislature that would expand access to firearms, hoping instead that lawmakers might respond to the recent mass shootings with measures such as expanded background checks and a ban on assault rifles. The state, he noted, has dealt with a series of mass shootings and soaring gun deaths among youths.

“If guns made us safer, Tennessee should be one of the safest states in the country,” he said. “Instead, we have one of the worst gun violence problems in America.”

Hundreds of people gathered in Public Square Park in downtown Nashville on Wednesday for a vigil honoring those killed during this week’s shooting, cupping their hands around flickering white candles or shielding their eyes from the bright sun.

They embraced one another and wiped away tears, some singing along as the musician Ketch Secor performed “Will the Circle Be Unbroken?”

The seven children of Mike Hill, a beloved custodian killed in the shooting, joined Jill Biden, the first lady, Mayor John Cooper, local leaders and law enforcement officials.

On the steps of the courthouse and at City Hall, they left flowers.

Emily Cochrane contributed reporting. Susan C. Beachy contributed research.

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