GOP lawmakers vote to arm teachers a year after Nashville shooting

Gun Rights

It’s been a little over a year since a former student armed with an AR-15 assault rifle and other firearms killed three 9-year-olds and three staff members at the Covenant School, a private Christian institution in Nashville. The shooter was killed by police.

Tennessee’s Republican lawmakers have not learned any lessons since, instead passing legislation that would bring more guns into classrooms by allowing some teachers to carry concealed handguns on school grounds.

The state Senate passed the arms-for-teachers bill on April 9. The House approved the legislation on Tuesday in a raucous session. The bill now goes to Republican Gov. Bill Lee, who is expected to sign it. 

Protesters in the galleries chanted “blood on your hands!” Tuesday as the legislation passed on a vote of 68-28, with four Republicans joining Democrats in voting against it, The Tennessean reported. The House Speaker ordered state troopers to clear the galleries. Protesters then lay on the floor outside the chamber staging a die-in. 

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On Monday, a Covenant School mom, Sarah Shoup Neumann, delivered a letter to the House with more than 5,300 signatures asking lawmakers to kill the bill.

“While we all want safe schools and an end to gun violence, arming teachers with guns is not the way,” the letter read. “It ignores research that shows the presence of a gun increases the risks posed to children.”

Democratic state Sen. Justin Pearson of Memphis called the bill “absolutely insane.”

Pearson and another young Black representative, Justin Jones, rose to national prominence in April 2023, when they were expelled from the legislature for leading a gun control protest on the House floor in the wake of the Covenant shooting. They were soon reinstated to their seats by voters in their districts.

In an opinion piece for CNN earlier this month, Pearson wrote:

Arming teachers increases the likelihood of shootings in schools, increases the chance that students will have access to guns and erodes trust in educators. A teacher with a handgun is unable to stop a shooter with a military-style weapon, and teachers aren’t able to respond in the ways trained law enforcement agents can. Adverse impacts — including fatal outcomes — will disproportionately fall on already marginalized populations such as disabled and Black students.

Pearson also warned that other Republican-controlled states “could choose to follow suit.” In Iowa, lawmakers sent a bill to Gov. Kim Reynolds this month that would allow teachers and other staff members to obtain permits to carry guns on school grounds. The legislation followed a January school shooting in Perry, Iowa, in which a high school student killed a sixth-grader and the principal and wounded six others before killing himself.

Back in February 2018, shortly after a teen gunman killed 17 people at a high school in Parkland, Florida, then-President Donald Trump suggested that “gun-adept teachers” receive a bonus to carry concealed weapons at schools as a deterrence to prevent school shootings.

In Tennessee, Republican legislators over the past year have failed to pass any meaningful gun safety legislation in a state which has one of the highest rates of firearm-related deaths in the U.S.

The state legislature even refused to take up a proposal by Lee to pass a red flag law that would have allowed a judge to temporarily remove guns from a person if they are found to pose a risk of harm to themselves or others.

When the state Senate met on April 9 to take up the arms-for-teachers bill, the visitors’ gallery was packed with protesters, including parents of Covenant students, chanting “Shame on you” and  “Kill the bill, not the kids.” State troopers cleared the galleries, and the bill was approved on a party-line 26-5 vote.

Republican Sen. Ken Yager said the bill was needed in rural areas where there might be only a few officers on duty at any time, making it difficult to respond quickly to a shooting incident.

The bill would require any school employee who wants to carry a handgun to have an enhanced carry permit, obtain written authorization from both the school’s principal and law enforcement, clear a background check, undergo a psychological evaluation, and complete 40 hours of handgun training.

One point of contention with the legislation is that parents would not necessarily know or be notified if their child’s teacher was carrying a handgun.

Memphis-area Democratic Sen. London Lamar, holding her 8-month-old son on the Senate floor, said: ”This bill is dangerous … Teachers don’t want it. The school districts don’t want it. It’s not going to work. It’s going to cause more school shootings.”

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An October 2023 Gallup Poll found that 56% of adult Americans said gun laws should be stricter, while 31% believed they should be kept as they are now and only 12% favored less strict gun laws. The American Federation of Teachers, in a June 2022 survey of its members, found that more than 75% of those polled opposed arming teachers and staff.

Beth Gebhard, whose son and daughter attend the Covenant School, told The Tennessean that she watched the Senate proceedings with tears in her eyes. 

She said her two children survived the shooting only because of well-trained teachers and police officers doing their jobs. She couldn’t imagine a teacher also having to confront a shooter armed with an assault-style rifle.

“A handgun will do nothing against that,” she said. “If what had happened on March 27 had gone down the way that it did with a teacher armed with a handgun attempting to put the perpetrator out, my children would likely be dead. “

On April 15, hundreds of students walked out of classrooms and marched to the state Capitol in Nashville to demand tighter gun control measures. 

Among the speakers at a rally outside the Capitol was Rep. Gloria Johnson, who last year narrowly escaped efforts by GOP lawmakers to expel her from the House along with Pearson and Jones. Johnson, a former special ed teacher, is waging an uphill campaign for the Senate against Republican Sen. Marsha Blackburn.

Pearson, in his CNN op-ed piece, noted that Tennessee Republican lawmakers should have consulted the National Association of School Resource Officers, which opposes arming teachers.

Pearson also accused the GOP supermajority in the legislature of being beholden to the Tennessee Firearms Association, and the National Rifle Association, which supports arming teachers.

Barbara Sloan, an elementary education major at Vanderbilt, wrote in an opinion piece for The Tennessean wrote that she’s ready “to take a bullet for my students” to protect them, but opposes bringing more guns into classrooms. She wrote:

“I can’t fathom what our educational system would become in a world where access to children’s books in schools is more regulated than access to lethal weaponry. Our job as teachers is to help children learn while keeping them safe. That’s impossible if guns are part of the equation.”

An opinion piece by sophomore Melanie Gecko in the Vanderbilt Political Review spotlighted just how disconnected Tennessee’s Republican lawmakers are from the real concerns of their constituents.

In April, the legislature passed two bills to protect Tennesseans from imaginary threats inspired by right-wing conspiracy theories. The “chemtrail” bill bans the intentional release of airborne chemicals that some lawmakers believe is part of a secret government geoengineering program.

Another bill protects Tennesseans from the horrors of “vaccine lettuce,” classifying any food that contains a vaccine or vaccine material as a drug. That’s a conspiracy theory derived from reports that researchers are studying whether they can turn edible plants like lettuce into mRNA vaccine factories. .

Gerko wrote:

However, this hyperfocus on vegetable-related legislation begs the question: aren’t there more pressing issues facing Tennessee? Surely, the safety and well-being of school children, who find themselves begging the governor to protect them from guns, should take precedence over hypothetical scenarios involving vegetables. … Yet, instead of addressing concerns such as gun violence, the Tennessee state legislature persists in its outlandish distractions.”

Here’s an MSNBC interview featuring Gebhard and Pearson:

Editor’s note: This story has been lightly edited for style and clarity, and its headline has been changed.

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