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Despite calls for gun safety, Tennessee passes bill for teachers to carry in school

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

After the deadly shooting at Covenant School in Nashville last year, thousands of people rallied at the Tennessee Capitol. They called for lawmakers to pass gun safety measures like a red flag law or an expansion of background checks. Instead, lawmakers passed a package of bills expanding gun access during this year's legislative session. One, signed by Republican Governor Bill Lee, will allow teachers to carry firearms. Blaise Gainey with member station WPLN and has the story.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Chanting) Hey, hey, ho, ho. Guns in schools have got to go. Hey, hey, ho, ho. Guns in schools have got to go.

BLAISE GAINEY, BYLINE: Nearly 200 Nashville high school students walked out of class to protest outside the Tennessee State Capitol ahead of a vote to allow teachers to carry guns in the classroom. Senior Ella Brinen said expanding where guns can be carried won't make schools safer.

ELLA BRINEN: We do not want guns in school. Guns are the problem.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Yeah.

BRINEN: They do not belong there.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Woo (ph).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: All right.

BRINEN: Students belong there.

GAINEY: This bill came up during the last session, but it was delayed after the Covenant School shooting that left three students and three staff members dead. But a year later, Republican lawmakers were set on getting it in the law books. State Representative Ryan Williams is the bill's Republican sponsor. He believes armed teachers can make schools safer.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RYAN WILLIAMS: Across our state, we have had challenges as it relates to shootings all across the state. We know - some of us know that sometimes somebody will go to place A to shoot up a school or do something negative, and they end up going somewhere else because they're deterrent.

GAINEY: After the Covenant shooting, advocates rallied, demanding lawmakers to pass gun safety legislation, like stricter background checks or a ban on assault weapons. Even Republican governor Bill Lee called for a red flag law to remove guns from those deemed to be a danger to themselves or others. But Republicans refused to consider it. Democratic state representative Justin J. Pearson said arming teachers doesn't get at what he believes is the real issue.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JUSTIN J PEARSON: 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.

GAINEY: Under the new law, a teacher must go through 40 hours of training, pass a psych evaluation, submit fingerprints and get a handgun permit in order to carry a weapon. Their principal, education commissioner and sheriff must sign off. But the bill won't require schools to inform parents or other educators if a teacher is armed. Here's Democratic state senator Raumesh Akbari.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RAUMESH AKBARI: You will have no idea whether the gun is there or not, who has it or not. I mean, it just - it's too many unknowns that promote a lack of safety as opposed to safety.

GAINEY: After the bill passed, several school districts announced they would not allow teachers to carry guns. Meanwhile, lawmakers did pass a bill requiring schools to teach kids about firearm safety. It got bipartisan support. Nearly half of Tennessee households own at least one gun. Republican state representative Chris Todd said kids should know how to be safe around them.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CHRIS TODD: By the time they turn 18, they're probably going to see a firearm, and we want to make sure that they know exactly what to do.

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

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HEIDI CAMPBELL: We're not addressing the actual problem, and I'm just going to say it is the guns.

GAINEY: Tennessee lawmakers will be back in 2025 and will likely consider major gun bills that didn't make it past the finish line this year. One would prevent businesses from prohibiting firearms on their property. Another would allow long guns like AR-15s to be carried openly.

For NPR News, I'm Blaise Gainey in Nashville. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Blaise Gainey