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Tennessee legislature passes controversial bill to allow teachers to carry firearms in schools

The Tennessee House passed a bill allowing the arming of teachers, after several walk-outs and teach-ins hosted by students against the measure.
Alexis Marshall
The Tennessee House passed a bill allowing the arming of teachers, after several walk-outs and teach-ins hosted by students against the measure.

Tennessee teachers and school staff may soon be able to carry handguns on campus thanks to a bill passed by the General Assembly.

Students protest against the bill

The move goes against what many have been rallying for after the Covenant School shooting left six victims dead, three of whom were students.

High school senior Sarayah Shaw helped organize a teach-in event at the capitol on Monday, calling on lawmakers to reject the bill. She and other speakers at the student-led protest said that the solution to school shootings is not introducing more guns to schools.

“So many students have poured so much of their heart and soul into advocating against this bill,” Shaw said.

Students at the protest raised a number of concerns about how the bill would work in action. They noted a lack of safe storage requirements in the law, and said they’re scared that students could gain access to guns. But students feel lawmakers have not been listening.

“They’ve ignored the students. We are the experts on what it’s like to be in the classroom. They don’t know what it’s like to live in a lockdown generation,” said Emmie Wolf-Dubin, who helped organize the rally. “And yet, they continue to harm our situation and just make it worse.”

A student holds a sign protesting the measure, which reads “Our blood is on your hands.”
Alexis Marshall 
A student holds a sign protesting the measure, which reads “Our blood is on your hands.”

The chaos after the vote

The passage of the bill Tuesday caused an eruption from observers in the gallery. Chants of “blood on your hands” and “vote him out” lasted for several minutes after the vote was done. The outburst, and continuing chants after, led state troopers to clear the gallery, which was filled largely with parent

As this happened Rep. Justin Jones, D-Nashville, took out his phone and began recording in violation of House rules. He was called ruled out of order but refused to stop. Republicans continued to rule him out of order to the point where he reached the maximum under House Rule 19, which meant he won’t be recognized to speak on for the remainder of the day and the next.

While Rep. Jones was recording, several members of the Republican caucus also took to their smart devices to capture what was taking place. Jones mentioned this to the press afterward, pointing out that House Majority Leader William Lamberth also recorded and admitted to it. However, neither Lamberth nor any other Republican were ruled out of order.

One member of the GOP, Rep. Chris Todd, R-Madison, was called out of order for making physical contact with Jones. It was put to a vote, but Republicans, who have a super majority, voted to not rule Todd out of order.

How the bill works

Texas, Florida, Arizona, Mississippi and South Dakota allow teachers and other employees to carry if they are designated school guardians or part of a program.

Tennessee’s version would require teachers to first get approval from the principal, the district superintendent and a local law enforcement agency. Once they get those signatures, they must get a handgun carry permit, undergo a background check, complete 40 hours of additional training and pass a psychological evaluation.

Once they complete those steps, they can carry firearms without the need to alert parents whose kids attend the school. Democrats tried to add parental consent into the bill, but the measure was voted down. In total, they tried to attach more than 10 amendments; they all failed.

Rep. John Ray Clemmons, D-Nashville, said even the amendments wouldn’t have made the bill much better.

“This is a very dangerous piece of legislation that can not be amended in anyway that will make it good unless we defeat it,” Clemmons said.

Sponsor Rep. Ryan Williams, R-Cookeville, believes the measure is well-thought-out. He says the measure creates a deterrent for people wanting to do harm at Tennessee schools. He also says crime went down on higher education campuses after lawmakers in 2016 passed a law allowing professors to carry firearms.

“What we saw was an overall reduction in crime on higher education campuses in every category by a minimum of 20%,” Williams said.

He got his numbers from the Tennessee Bureau of Investigations Crime on Campus 2017 report. However, in the latest report, it also shows a total of 86 weapon law violations on campuses in 2022 — an increase of more than 45% for the second year in a row.

Rep. Jason Zachary, R-Knoxville, says schools need to have teachers with firearms because there are more than 500 school resource officer jobs open in the state.

The bill now heads to Gov. Bill Lee’s office. Lee has refused to comment on the measure but has told media he is “open to the idea.”

Blaise Gainey is a Political Reporter for WPLN News. He is the youngest of three siblings, husband and father of two. He previously held the State Government Reporter position for WFSU News in Tallahassee. He is from Apopka, Fla., and graduated from The School of Journalism at the Florida A&M University. He previously worked for The Florida Channel and WTXL-TV. He is excited to move to another capital and report on state government. In his spare time, he enjoys watching sports, outdoor activities and enjoying family time.
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