NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — As Nashville residents reeled from a fatal grade school shooting that left six dead, a federal judge quietly cleared the way to drop the minimum age for Tennesseans to carry handguns publicly without a permit to 18 — just two years after a new law set the age at 21.
The move marked yet another relaxation of gun laws in ruby red Tennessee, where GOP leaders have steadily chipped away at firearms regulations and lambasted those who have warned that doing so comes at a cost.
It's a familiar scene playing out across the United States, with Republican-dominant states rebuffing calls to strengthen gun safety laws in the wake of violent tragedies and Democrats in blue states championing gun control proposals.
"This isn't freedom. Our families don't deserve this. I am sick of living in fear that our loved ones won't make it home because of gun violence," said state Sen. Raumesh Akbari, a Democrat from Memphis, shortly after Monday's shooting.
"Prayers are good, but faith without works is dead," she said, referencing a common Bible verse. "Let's not let another preventable tragedy unfold without this legislature taking real action."
In a video statement released late Tuesday, Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee called on Tennesseans to pray, but added: "Prayer is the first thing we should do, but it's not the only thing."
He made no mention of guns or gun laws but vowed to take action. He said that his wife had been friends with two of the victims in Monday's shooting and that the three had once taught together.
""We can all agree on one thing, that every human has great value," said the Republican governor. "And we will act to prevent this from happening again. There's a clear desire in all of us, whether we agree on the action steps or not, that we must work to find ways to protect against evil."
In Tennessee, Monday's school shooting isn't expected to move the political needle on gun regulation. Republicans control every major political office throughout the state and face little serious opposition against Democrats who call for stricter gun laws.
In 2019, Lee told religious leaders he believed if Tennesseans prayed to God to favor the state, God would answer those prayers — ranging from diminishing the state's opioid epidemic and improving Tennessee's educational outcomes, to avoiding school shootings.
But last year, when asked if he would support restricting firearms in response to recent mass shootings across the U.S., Lee voiced his opposition.
"We can't control what we can't control," he said in the days following the gunning down of 19 elementary school students and two teachers in Texas.
Instead, Lee signed an executive order calling for enhanced safety measures, but without any mention of guns. He has also called for adding a school resource officer in every school while stating that he has not considered arming teachers to help boost school security.
In his video statement Monday, Lee said steps have been taken to strengthen school safety "and that work was not in vain."
Recently resurfaced photos of U.S. Rep. Andy Ogles and his family from 2021 further capture Tennessee's relaxed gun culture. The images show the Republican and his family posing with firearms in front of their Christmas tree. The caption read: "The very atmosphere of firearms anywhere and everywhere restrains evil interference — they deserve a place of honor with all that's good.
Ogles, whose district includes Nashville, said after Monday's school shooting that his family was "devastated by the tragedy."
Already this year, Republican lawmakers have introduced bills that would make it easier to arm teachers and allow college students to carry weapons on campus. Democratic-led efforts to strengthen gun safety measures have faltered. On Tuesday, lawmakers delayed taking up any of the contentious gun related bills, saying they wanted to offer respect to the community.
The most significant movement involves the state's permitless carry law. In 2021, Lee led the charge to allow most adults 21 and older to carry handguns without first obtaining a permit that requires clearing a state background check and training. Thereafter, gun manufacturer Smith & Wesson announced plans to relocate its headquarters to Tennessee due to the state's "support for the 2nd Amendment."
Nevertheless, the law was met with a lawsuit from a gun rights group arguing the minimum age should be 18. By late last year, Tennessee Attorney General Jonathan Skrmetti's office negotiated a settlement rather than defend the law, citing last year's U.S. Supreme Court ruling expanding gun rights.
Skrmetti proposed a deal to allow 18- to 20-year-olds to carry handguns publicly. That agreement was approved Monday — the same day a 28-year-old former student shot through the doors of a Christian elementary school in Nashville and killed three children and three adults.
Skrmetti's office declined to comment on the settlement.
Meanwhile, Republican lawmakers are moving to change the law so it reflects the court deal. The legislation is still making its way through the Capitol.
The Tennessee Highway Patrol had already stopped enforcing the prohibition for 18- to 20-year-olds to carry handguns without a permit before the judge signed off on the settlement, Department of Safety lobbyist Elizabeth Stroecker told lawmakers last week.
Separately, Tennessee does not have a "red flag" law, which allows police to take firearms away from people who threaten to kill. On Tuesday, Metropolitan Nashville Police Chief John Drake said the suspect in Monday's shooting, 28-year-old Audrey Hale, was under the care of a doctor for an "emotional disorder" but no law is currently in place that would have allowed authorities to confiscate the weapons Hale had purchased.