Note: This story was updated at 6:40 p.m. with more information.
NASHVILLE — Chattanooga Mayor Tim Kelly's call for "common sense" gun regulations following two weekends of city gun violence is proving to be a nonstarter with Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee.
Kelly called for mandatory background checks on all firearm purchases and a ban on high-capacity magazines.
Lee on Monday announced new safety steps directed at schools that don't include additional gun regulations.
"There are a lot of opinions about whether or not certain actions actually have an effect on what's occurred here," the Republican governor told reporters during a state Capitol news conference where he unveiled a series of actions and recommendations for Tennessee public schools following mass shootings at a Uvalde, Texas, elementary school May 24 and another May 14 at a Buffalo, New York, grocery store.
"We're not looking at gun restriction laws in my administration right now. There's one thing to remember, criminals don't follow the laws. Criminals break laws," Lee said. "We can't control what we can't control."
Noting he spoke with Kelly earlier Monday, Lee said he offered the mayor "the ability work together on ways that we can eliminate violence in Chattanooga, gun violence in Chattanooga.
"And we will be working together," Lee said. "We already have begun that process. But again, we are not looking at gun restrictions or gun laws as a part of this school safety plan going forward."
Neither of the shootings in Chattanooga occurred in a school. The latest incident, in which two people died of gunshot wounds and a third was struck by a vehicle, came as gunfire erupted outside a nightclub in the 2100 block of McCallie Avenue. One of the 14 victims who survived was a 16-year-old boy.
The earlier incident occurred May 29 in downtown Chattanooga around the 100 block of Cherry Street. Six teens were wounded, two with life-threatening injuries.
"I am a gun owner," Kelly said in a statement Sunday. "I've been an avid hunter and marksman all my life — and so I want to say this clearly, I fully support responsible gun ownership, but Congress needs to do their jobs and pass common sense regulations that will help stop this nonsense."
Kelly said "that doesn't mean taking guns away from responsible gun owners, but it does mean mandatory background checks and prohibiting high-capacity magazines that allow shooters to hurt dozens of people without having to so much as reload."
The mayor's chief of staff, Joda Thongnopnua, told the Chattanooga Times Free Press by phone Monday that Kelly and Lee spoke with each other earlier in the day.
"I think they had a productive conversation about ways to keep the community safe," Thongnopnua said. "The mayor's going to remain focused on talking about interventions that law enforcement officers universally across this country, across this state and this community say work. And one of those things is keeping guns out of the hands of folks that hurt other people."
He added that includes common-sense background checks.
"So that you can't just buy a gun without getting a background check at a gun show or online where the loopholes are. Or high capacity magazines that allow folks to hurt a lot of people without even having to re-load," Thongnopnua said. "Those are common-sense things the mayor is going to continue to advocate for that can be taken on the prevention side."
All are priorities, he said.
Kelly's larger plan focuses on the economic and social impacts of poverty and how officials can address areas that often lead people "down a violent path" to start with, Thongnopnua said. Other aspects include expanding community centers' hours to include evenings and working with juvenile court judges to find better ways to enforce curfew laws and engage parents so youth can find "a better place to go."
And Thongnopnua said there are many areas on the prevention and intervention side that local officials see the state as being a productive partner on.
"I don't think we're going to be myopic about how we can reduce gun violence in this community and anticipate the governor may be helpful on some of those items as well," he said.
In his announcement Monday, Lee said he is ordering new accountability measures for school safety, an evaluation of Tennessee law enforcement training and new resources to support parents, teachers and police in improving school security practices following the May 24 mass shooting at a Uvalde elementary school in which an 18-year-old man fatally shot 19 students and two teachers and wounded 17 others.
He signed an executive order Monday morning to implement the measures.
"Parents need to have full confidence that their children are safe at school, and thankfully, Tennessee has built a firm foundation with our practical approach to securing schools, recognizing crisis and providing confidential reporting of any suspicious activity," Lee said in a statement.
"This order strengthens accountability and transparency around existing school safety planning and assures Tennessee parents that our efforts to protect students and teachers will continue," the governor said.
None of the measures outlined by Lee address issues that led several dozen Tennessee pastors and other critics to protest outside the governor's first-floor state Capitol office last week.
Invoking the Uvalde deadly shooting spree and the earlier May 14 killing of 10 Black people shopping at a Buffalo, New York, supermarket, they called on Lee to push for a repeal of the state's permitless gun carry law and move to ban semi-automatic assault-style weapons as well as armor piercing ammunition and high-capacity gun magazines.
Other asks by the Southern Christian Coalition group included urging Lee to put his support behind passing Senate Bill 1807. It's a "red flag" law proposal law that enables police or family members to petition a court to order the temporary removal of firearms from someone who may present a danger to others or themselves.
Among those speaking was Shaundelle Brooks, the mother of Akilah DaSilva, who was shot and killed in a 2018 mass shooting at a Nashville Waffle House.
"All the emotions come back," Brooks said in a post later. "Here we go again: The blaming. My heart goes out to the mothers who have lost children."
The Tennessee Lookout reported that group members left 19 stuffed toys outside Lee's office to represent the 19 Texas children killed, then remained for some 90 minutes to represent the time spent by Uvalde shooter spent in the school building before he was shot and killed by a U.S. Border Patrol tactical team.
After group members left, the Tennessee Lookout reported, Lee staff members gathered the toys and threw them into a trash bin.
In a Monday phone interview with the Times Free Press, the Rev. Brandon Gilvin, senior minister of First Christian Church in Chattanooga who is involved with the Southern Christian Coalition, said, "I was really disappointed but not surprised by Lee's office's response to the public action last week. It's reflective of the lack of moral leadership we've seen on that issue from that office."
Gilvin, who was not at the protest, said Lee's unwillingness to consider certain measures appears to stem from "listening to gun lobbyists" as opposed to "the majority who back common sense gun laws."
"We're looking at pretty significant tragedy here, and with the number of gun deaths we've seen here just locally in Chattanooga and in the last two weeks, it's important to not close our eyes to those issues."
State Rep. Brandon Ogles, R-Franklin, was among those attending Lee's news conference Monday.
"For conservative folks in very red states, you usually don't see expansion of background checks or gun laws that don't match the federal level," Ogles told reporters later. "Just historically, it hasn't happened. To see it happen now would be very surprising."
Asked why, Ogles, who is not seeking re-election, said, "I just think that there's a fundamental belief that the acts are evil, and the evil will be carried out regardless. So if it's not a high-capacity magazine, it will be an improvised explosive device. If it's not an explosive, it will be gasoline. I mean, there's always a mechanism to do that. So to purely focus on the firearm, a lot of people don't believe that's the solution."
During a legislative committee debate earlier this year, Ogles was one of the few Republicans to speak up about some types of regulation.
"I believe well-regulated means regulated," Ogles said, referring to the U.S. Constitution's Second Amendment. "I believe in federal requirements, I believe in strong background checks. And to the fact where somebody's declared mentally incompetent, there needs to be discussion about access to firearms. I'm of the frame of mind that somebody's convicted of domestic violence or has a restraining order, why would they have access to a firearm? I'm very pro-gun. I'm saying the red-flag laws I have seen up to date have not been drafted in a way to make them reasonable to pass.
"There could be some compromise there. But where that is, that will be for the next General Assembly to hash out. And I'll no longer be here."
The U.S. Constitution's Second Amendment states: "A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed."
In his executive order, Lee outlined a number of measures. These include:
Creates a School Safety Resources and Engagement Guide to provide parents with information regarding how to effectively engage and advocate for safe conditions at their child's school, including how to report suspicious or concerning activity through the SafeTN App, access mental health resources for their child and inquire about building security and compliance at their child's school.
"Encourages" parents, families and the local community to engage in school safety and partner with law enforcement to "promote the habits and practices that help ensure school building security against unauthorized intruders." The governor's office says that can be done "by implementing simple practices, such as ensuring a single point of entry and multiple points of exit, securing vestibules and other access points and reporting suspicious activity, communities have the ability to vastly increase the security of their local school."
Directs Tennessee state agencies to provide additional guidance to help local school districts implement existing school safety law, which requires that each public school conduct an annual school security assessment and submit a school safety plan to the Tennessee school safety center.
The guidance is to include:
— An increase in periodic audits of Tennessee local school security assessments and school safety plans, including but not limited to random in-person verification by state officials of a school's implementation of the approved assessment.
— A set of "best practices" for school leaders to enhance building security and safety against an unauthorized intruder.
— Information for district and local government leadership regarding financial resources for school safety available through state programs and the state's recently enacted new K-12 education funding formula, the Tennessee Investment in Student Achievement Act.
The governor's proposals are intended to "ensure" school districts receive guidance from the State Fire Marshal's Office and other state agencies regarding how to appropriately improve school building security, while maintaining emergency egress and safeguarding of life and property from the hazards of fire and explosion.
The executive order directs the state Department of Education to request federal permission for K-12 districts to use existing federal pandemic relief funds. The purpose: "[T]o conduct a fulsome, independent safety assessment, including the identification of necessary facility upgrades. The Department will report to the Governor on which districts utilize that flexibility, if approved."
The order directs the Department of Education to identify regional staff to support school safety through "repurposing" existing staff to focus on safety, mental health and family and community engagement. It also orders development of additional training and educational materials regarding school safety for educators, school leaders and staff, no later than Aug. 1, 2022.
For law enforcement
Directs the Department of Commerce & Insurance, through Tennessee Law Enforcement Academy, to "evaluate and assess" law enforcement training standards and recommend expansions, improvements or enhancements to existing training for active-shooter scenarios, and provide a report to the governor, no later than July 1, 2022, with recommendations to expand its availability to local law enforcement agencies and related education stakeholders.
Directs the state Department of Commerce & Insurance to review the use of armed security guards in non-public schools and, with the state Department of Safety & Homeland Security, report to the Governor regarding the need for active-shooter training for armed guards.
Calls for "new strategies" to expand local and state law enforcement agencies by increasing the number of Tennesseans exploring and pursuing careers in law enforcement.
Lee's administration says since becoming governor, Lee has taken steps in "strengthening" school safety and "prioritized" that with efforts focused on mental health resources, confidential reporting and securing school buildings.
In 2019, Lee's office says, he established a School Resource Officer Grant program placing 213 new SROs in Tennessee public schools.
Efforts also doubled the state's annual investment in school safety funding to support improvements in building security measures and violence intervention programming.
School safety investments remain a "top priority" under the state's new funding formula, the governor's office said.
The Tennessee Department of Safety & Homeland Security developed a free app called SafeTN which is an anonymous reporting system for students, faculty, parents and the public to easily and confidentially report their concerns or tips to law enforcement.
According to the release, mental health resources have been expanded through the Mental Health Trust Fund and The Tennessee Mental Health Crisis Hotline, which is available 24/7, 365 days a year: 855-274-7471.