NASHVILLE — Three out of four Tennesseans from a new Vanderbilt University poll said they strongly or somewhat support red flag laws that permit a court to order the temporary removal of firearms from a person found to be at "high risk" of harming themselves or others as a way to prevent school shootings.
Vanderbilt's semiannual poll also shows eight of 10 Tennesseans voice support for Republican Gov. Bill Lee's executive order strengthening background checks for gun buyers following the March 27 attack on a private Christian school in Nashville that left six people dead, including three 9-year-old children.
Lee is pressing for more action beyond his executive order. He announced late last month he intends to call the GOP-dominated General Assembly back to the state Capitol to enact an order-of-protection bill he said is needed to help prevent "dangerous, unstable individuals" from having access to weapons.
The governor has resisted characterizing his legislation as a red flag law, although gun rights critics of his have called it that.
"We also share a strong commitment to preserving Second Amendment rights, ensuring due process and addressing the heart of the problem with strengthened mental health resources," Lee said in recent statement.
The governor insisted his effort is not a red flag law because it would ensure a person would have the opportunity to appear in court on the front end to contest any effort to remove his or her firearms while red-flag laws don't.
Other findings in the semiannual poll found support for basic protections for abortion access as well as health care access for the LGBTQ community. But there are differences on specifics.
The survey was conducted April 19–23 and has an overall margin of error of plus-or-minus 3.6 percentage points.
"This points to there being an opportunity for broad, popular progress at the state level," political science professor Josh Clinton said in a news release. "The special session that Gov. Bill Lee has called to address guns and public safety is the first such chance, but there are many other issues on which the public agree and which paint a logical path forward in the next full session."
Also in the release, political science professor John Geer called it "hopeful that while 58% of respondents view Tennesseans as divided, there is a fairly strong agreement on basic next steps in our most politically divisive issues.
"At the same time, 74% of registered voters say they'd prefer their elected leaders compromise across the aisle rather than strictly pursue their own values and priorities," Geer added.
Since May 2012, the Vanderbilt poll has asked registered voters to rank what issues should be the Tennessee government's top priority. For 20 consecutive surveys, guns ranked last or nearly last, according to Geer and Clinton.
But in April, guns ranked as No. 3 in voters' minds, 2 percentage points behind education and 3 points behind the economy. That came after the shooting at The Covenant School in Nashville, a private Christian elementary school. The governor and his wife, Maria, were friends of the school's head, who died in the attack. The 28-year-old former student who carried out the attack was under care for an emotional disorder and had legally bought seven firearms, Metro Nashville Police Chief John Drake has said.
After the shooting, Lee on April 11 signed an executive order strengthening background checks for firearm purchases. The Vanderbilt poll found 82% of Tennesseans support that, with 10% opposed.
A week after the mass shooting, Lee and legislative leaders also proposed measures and funding to place armed school resource officers at each of the state's public schools. Those measures were later approved by lawmakers.
Seventy-two percent of self-described "MAGA Republicans" and 81% of non-MAGA Republicans said they support the governor's executive order, according to the Vanderbilt Poll. So do 91% of Democrats and 78 percent of independents.
Among those who strongly or somewhat favor the National Rifle Association, support for the executive action is also strong at 74 percent and 77 percent, respectively, according to the poll.
An overwhelming majority of registered voters also support a so-called red flag law that would temporarily restrict access to guns for individuals who are at a high risk of harming themselves or others.
To better understand how opinions are influenced by the March shooting at The Covenant School, the Vanderbilt Poll posed questions about gun laws in two ways — one that tied support of a restriction to "preventing school shootings" and another to more generally "preventing gun-related violence."
Seventy-two percent of the registered voters surveyed said they support a red flag law to prevent general gun-related violence. Support increased to 75 percent when the question associated the law specifically with preventing school shootings.
Tennessee Firearms Association Executive Director John Harris, an attorney, panned the governor's plan last month.
"Gov. Lee called for the legislature to react to the emotional response of some citizens after the Covenant murders," Harris said in a statement.
Harris in his statement also cited the U.S. Supreme Court's 6-3 2022 decision in New York State Rifle & Pistol Association v. Bruen. The nation's highest court ruled as unconstitutional a New York law that required applicants for a license to carry a concealed handgun to show "proper cause" or a special need separate from the general public.
It transformed the standard for analyzing Second Amendment challenges, and multiple legal challenges have been filed in multiple states, including Tennessee. Tennessee was sued by a California gun-rights group over its law restricting people from ages 18 to 20 from obtaining state handgun-carry permits unless they were serving or had served in the military.
Tennessee Attorney General Jonathan Skremtti earlier this year wound up settling with the California group through an agreed order signed by a U.S. District judge in Knoxville.
"Nothing in Bruen authorized knee-jerk emotional responses to murders or the calls of progressive Democrats and their mobs to justify government infringement of a right protected by the Constitution," Harris said.
Another Vanderbilt survey finding: Depending on how the question is asked, 64% to 67% of respondents said they back laws requiring gun owners to securely store their firearms to protect against unauthorized access or else face penalties. Support is bipartisan, according to the survey, with 54% of all Republicans, 68% of independents and 91% of Democrats in favor.
Before departing Nashville last month, the Republican-dominated legislature approved legislation slightly relaxing the state's no-exceptions anti-abortion law.
Opposition to the law before the changes were approved was bipartisan, according to the poll. Ninety-three percent of Democrats, 82% of independents, 62% of non-MAGA Republicans and 53% of MAGA Republicans said they didn't support the law.
The legislation to change it was sponsored in the House by Rep. Esther Helton, R-East Ridge, a nurse. It was signed into law by Lee on April 29.
Helton's legislation added two narrow exceptions to the ban. One is for ectopic or molar pregnancies, and the other is for abortions that, in a doctor's "reasonable medical judgment," are necessary to prevent serious injury or death of the mother.
According to the Vanderbilt Poll, survey respondents at a 3-to-1 rate oppose the idea that people should be charged with a crime if they help a Tennessee resident get an abortion in another state.
Another question dealt with access to the abortion pill mifepristone. A federal judge in Texas rolled back decades-old federal Food and Drug Administration approval of its use. The ban has been placed on hold as the case is argued at the appellate level and is ultimately expected to wind up in the U.S. Supreme Court.
Fifty-nine percent of poll respondents said its use should be upheld, while 33% said it should be revoked.
Registered voters were divided on questions about laws passed this year by GOP lawmakers impacting Tennessee's LGBTQ community. A plurality of voters — 47% — said they strongly or somewhat disapproved of the way the legislature is handling laws affecting this community, with 35% saying they strongly or somewhat approved of such legislation.
But asked a specific question about whether "adult cabaret entertainment" and "drag shows" should be banned on public property or in locations where such productions could be viewed by a minor, 63% said they felt they should be banned, while 35% said they should not.
Most voters said they oppose legislation that would restrict transgender individuals' access to health care. Sixty-six percent opposed such restrictions, while a quarter of voters supported them. That opposition holds across party lines, including in subdivisions of MAGA (52%) and non-MAGA Republicans (58%).
GOP lawmakers this year banned transgender-related treatments and surgery for minors in most instances. The poll posed no specific questions about treatments for juveniles.