Tennessee legislators fighting ‘tyranny’ with tyranny

Gun Rights
A woman hugs a police officer at the entrance of the Covenant School at the Covenant Presbyterian Church, in Nashville, Tenn., March 28, 2023. A heavily armed former student killed three young children and three staff in what appeared to be a carefully planned attack at a private elementary school in Nashville before being shot dead by police.

A woman hugs a police officer at the entrance of the Covenant School at the Covenant Presbyterian Church, in Nashville, Tenn., March 28, 2023. A heavily armed former student killed three young children and three staff in what appeared to be a carefully planned attack at a private elementary school in Nashville before being shot dead by police. (Brendan Smialowski, AFP via Getty Images/TNS)

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(Tribune News Service) — If you haven’t been watching the Tennessee Legislature, you’re missing out. Members of the Republican-controlled body, which is dominated by old white men, act as if they’ve been thrust into a century for which they are not quite prepared. It might be entertaining if it weren’t so frightful.

After six people, including three children, were gunned down at the Covenant School in Nashville last year, legislators haven’t been able to accept that many Tennesseans — from white suburban parents to young Black lawmakers and elected city officials — want sensible gun reform. They also don’t like the idea that these same people, many of whom elected them to office, have a legitimate role to play as good-faith participants in the democratic process.

With just weeks left in their annual legislative session, legislators are instead focused on imaginary problems built on conspiracy theories. They’ve passed legislation to make sure residents are protected from vaccines they believe can be transmitted through lettuce (they can’t) and embraced a long-debunked conspiracy theory that governments are releasing chemicals into the air using airplane condensation trails.

Another bill prevents first cousins from marrying for the first time — despite Republican Rep. Gus Bulso’s admission that his grandparents were first cousins who came to Tennessee because the state allowed them to marry.

These lawmakers seem very confused — about modernity, social advancements, and their duty as public officials.

Sadly, it’s not a new problem for the Tennessee Legislature. With a Republican governor and a supermajority in the state House and Senate, the party’s near-absolute control of the state allows lawmakers to pretend they are the patriarchs in a long-ago revolution. They act as if they need only listen to those who sound and look like them.

Last year, as legislators were in the midst of advancing a bill to shield gun dealers and ammunition manufacturers from lawsuits, a 28-year-old with a history of mental health issues pierced their bubble. The Covenant school shooter was carrying a legally obtained AR-style rifle, an AR-style pistol, and a handgun when she quietly entered the school and killed three 9-year-old students and three adults before being shot and killed by police.

Grieving parents arrived at the statehouse demanding stricter gun laws. Republican Gov. Bill Lee signed an executive order to strengthen background checks and called for a new law that would allow judges to deem individuals unfit to possess firearms.

When the legislature didn’t give any of Lee’s ideas a hearing, he called a special session and then abandoned his gun reforms. Parents were removed from committee rooms for applauding speakers. And two Black Democratic representatives, Justin Jones and Justin Pearson, who took to the House floor with a bullhorn to demand that their colleagues respond to the majority of Tennesseans whom polls show want stricter gun laws, were expelled.

Jones’ and Pearson’s communities reinstated them to their legislative offices, but in a sickening display of cowardice, their legislative peers responded this year with a bill outlawing communities’ ability to return anyone legislators have expelled to office.

Silencing the opposition is nothing new for these lawmakers. It’s how they approached every gun tragedy in their state for decades. With the support of the National Rifle Association, legislators repeatedly passed laws to get more guns on the streets, not fewer.

On the anniversary of the Covenant murders this year, thousands of people formed a four-mile human chain reaching the state Capitol to remind lawmakers of their demands for reasonable gun reforms — increased background checks, restrictions on high-risk individuals, and raising the age for purchasing assault rifles. And for the second year in a row, lawmakers refused to give a hearing to any of these ideas.

That’s because most of them believe their sacred duty is to elevate the 27-word Second Amendment and the right to “keep and bear arms” above all other responsibilities of office. They cling to the outdated belief that the amendment, which was explicitly intended to refer to militia service, now somehow entitles every Tennessean to modern-day semi-automatic weapons. They justify their allegiance to these lethal weapons because of their fear of “tyranny.”

By treating guns with more reverence than people, Tennessee lawmakers have created a receptive environment for deranged people to kill unsuspecting innocents. Gun violence is the No. 1 killer of children in the state, and in the last year, 1,300 Tennesseans died from firearms.

Of course, legislators have thrown money at school safety. They allocated $230 million to ensure school doors remain locked and to hire a school resource officer for every school, but few people are willing to take the jobs. And this year, lawmakers hope to make schools fortresses from carnage by arming teachers.

Legislative leaders have also found additional ways to silence their critics. Recently, when Rep. Jones questioned why legislators fortified schools instead of devising ways to prevent violence, leadership shut off his microphone.

It’s no wonder the Tennessee Legislature has a dismal approval rating among the public, including among Republicans. A supermajority can cavalierly ignore the public and deliberately silence dissent but nothing good comes of it.

In his book, “On Tyranny,” Yale historian Timothy Snyder tells us to “beware the one-party state” because leaders will exploit “a historic moment to make political life impossible for their opponents.”

Tennessee legislators may have a woefully anachronistic view of America, but they are not the ones to fear tyranny. Everyone else should because these legislators are acting like tyrants.

Mary Ellen Klas is a politics and policy columnist for Bloomberg Opinion. A former capital bureau chief for the Miami Herald, she has covered politics and government for more than three decades. This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

©2024 Bloomberg L.P.

Visit bloomberg.com/opinion

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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