Opinion: In 2024, can Gov. Bill Lee get his GOP to ‘lean in’ to gun reform?

Photo/George Walker IV/The Associated Press / Gov. Bill Lee delivers his State of the State address in the House chamber Monday, Feb. 5, 2024, in Nashville, Tenn.
Photo/George Walker IV/The Associated Press / Gov. Bill Lee delivers his State of the State address in the House chamber Monday, Feb. 5, 2024, in Nashville, Tenn.

During his State of the State address on Monday, Gov. Bill Lee talked a big game. Tennessee is ranked the fastest growing economy in the country, we pay some the lowest taxes in America and our roads are top notch.

But the governor was short on the most important and high-profile issue in our state: gun violence.

Of course it might not have been in the best interest of Lee to mention the public fallout after the mass shooting at Covenant Christian School, a private school in Nashville, or the expulsion of Justin Jones, D-Nashville, and Justin Pearson, D-Memphis, two Black lawmakers who protested a lack of legislative action on gun safety.

What we heard from Lee is confidence that Tennessee is making great strides in areas of school safety after the horrific mass shooting at the Covenant school in March 2023.

"Over the last year, we have worked together and made significant progress building on our strong foundation for school safety, starting with a $140 million grant to place a trained, armed school resource officer in every Tennessee public school," he said during his speech.

"Covenant experienced unimaginable tragedy, but tragedy doesn't have to be the end of the story," Lee said. "There is a redemption in struggle, if we lean into it."

Well, that is partly true. The Covenant shooting that took the lives of three adults and three children was a tragedy, but how far has Lee and the GOP supermajority leaned in to the issue of gun safety?

The special session Lee called in August on gun safety ended with a whimper — no meaningful gun safety, much less gun reform, legislation was brought up. Instead, there was more unity around passing rule changes to restrict a regular citizen's First Amendment rights then there was around gun reform.

Republicans are too invested in window dressing legislation. For example, a bill House Majority Leader William Lamberth, R-Portland, has filed would stipulate that a person deemed mentally incompetent to stand trial would no longer be able buy a gun in Tennessee. That seems like a no-brainer. Lamberth's bill might satisfy the citizen who wants to see gun safety "reform," but it doesn't go far enough. What Tennessee needs to explore are ways to restrict access to guns by those who shouldn't have them in the first place.

One piece of legislation won't fix what ails our society, our culture, our citizens. Having an officer who is trained and permitted to have a gun on school grounds might sound good, but it doesn't prevent someone who has evil intent from legally purchasing assault rifles and then using them. A good guy with a gun has been proven to not work all of the time. Just look at the Uvalde zchool shooting in Texas in 2022. There were lots of good guys with guns. To no avail; 19 students and two teachers died.

The governor used nice words to make crumbs look like a whole cake. Gun violence is on the hearts and minds of Tennesseans. According to a December Vanderbilt University poll, 76% of Tennesseans said they favored background checks for firearm purchases, for example, and 72% of Tennesseans support a red flag gun law to prevent gun violence. Support increases to 75% when gun violence is replaced with preventing a school shooting.

Lee put his faith on display at the podium, using the Bible story of Nehemiah to convey his message of unity. But where is his faith in changing the hearts and minds of GOP lawmakers who have resisted tackling gun safety? Lee can tout economic growth and conservative fiscal management, but he has a long way to go to ensure all Tennesseans feel safe and secure in their communities. A big part of the obstacle is the GOP supermajority in the General Assembly, whose members applaud his words but thwart his efforts to address a public concern.

Let's hope the governor gets more support from the General Assembly, or the next time he has to "lean" into an issue, he might fall flat on his face.

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