NASHVILLE — The Democratic-controlled U.S. House last week approved two gun-control bills along largely partisan lines. But the future outcome of both measures, which come following a series of mass shootings, faces uncertainty in the evenly divided U.S. Senate, where leaders of both parties are seeking common ground on the issue.
On a 223-204 vote, House members passed the Protecting Our Kids Act, a package of seven gun-control provisions that includes raising the minimum age to buy a semi-automatic weapon from 18 to 21.
Other provisions would ban civilians from using magazines with upwards of 15 rounds and establish a federal statutory framework to regulate "ghost guns," which are firearms without serial numbers.
The House also approved the Federal Extreme Risk Protection Order Act, a "red flag" gun control bill sponsored by U.S. Rep. Lucy McBath, D-Georgia, on a 224-202 vote, again mostly along party lines. It would nationalize such laws, allowing federal courts to temporarily remove a firearm from someone adjudicated as posing a threat to themselves or others.
"We cannot be the only nation in the world where our children are torn apart on Tuesday and their deaths are gone from the news cycle by Wednesday," said McBath, a Marietta congresswoman who became a gun-control advocate and later ran for office after her 17-year-old son, Jordan Davis, was murdered at a Florida gas station in 2012.
Five Republicans supported the measures, which came following the Uvalde, Texas, school shooting on May 24 in which 19 children and two teachers were killed, and the earlier mass shooting in a Buffalo supermarket on May 14, an alleged hate crime in which 10 Black people were killed.
The legislation has yet to be discussed in the Senate.
Gun violence has also thrust Chattanooga into the national news in recent weeks with six underage teens wounded by gunfire in the 100 block of Walnut Street on May 28, part of the city's tourist district. Two teens have been arrested.
And more gun violence on June 5 left three people dead — two by gunfire and another after being struck by a vehicle — and 14 others injured outside Mary's Bar & Grill at 2125 McCallie Ave.
All seven of Tennessee's Republican House members voted against both bills, while the two Democrats voted yes. And U.S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Georgia, and the state's other seven Republican members voted no, while McBath and five other Democrats voted yes.
U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann, R-Ooltewah, in a statement, questioned the constitutionality of some provisions in both bills.
"Instead of restricting Americans' rights, we must focus on hardening schools, funding mental health services, expanding drug treatment and interdiction, information sharing between law enforcement and giving our police resources to go after criminals and flood high crime areas with officers," the statement said.
U.S. Rep. Scott DesJarlais, R-Sherwood, also issued a statement.
"The far left wants you to believe that these laws are here to protect you. This is the same party that wants to make it easier to put criminals back on the street and take away the rights of millions of upstanding American citizens," the statement said.
"Our focus should be on hardening schools and increasing mental health services access," the statement went on. "I voted no on both H.R. 7910 and H.R. 2377 because I believe in protecting our constitutional Second Amendment rights."
During last week's debate on the bills, Greene, a fierce gun-rights advocate, argued against the measures, warning against "gun-free zones." She said her high school went on lockdown in 1990.
"Because one of the students ... brought three guns to school in a duffle bag on the school bus, brought the guns into our school and proceeded to take control of our high school and he was the only person in the school who had guns. That's why that happened. There was no one to protect us that had a gun that day. The only person with guns was the very mentally ill teenager who had brought guns to school that day ...
"I know that fear," Greene continued, later adding that as lawmakers debated the bills they were "all so privileged" to be protected by armed Capitol Hill police.
U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen, a Memphis Democrat, spoke in favor of the measures, including McBath's "red flag" measure as the congresswoman sat behind him.
"We have an obligation to protect our constituents to whom we have a responsibility to keep the American people safe," he said. "After each of these instances, we hear from our friends across the aisle that we must address mental health. I agree. But we must prevent those who are intent on harming themselves or others from having access to dangerous weapons and carrying out their intent."
Fleischmann, meanwhile, is coming under criticism from Chattanooga ministers who are members of the Southern Christian Coalition.
"I'm devastated by the decision of Rep. Chuck Fleischmann, my own representative, to prioritize the will of the gun lobby over the safety of our children in schools by voting against the bipartisan 'Protect Our Kids Act' ... in the U.S. House," said the Rev. Laura Becker, pastor of Northminister Presbyterian Church in Chattanooga.
The bill is just common sense, she said.
"Even worse than Rep. Fleischmann's vote was his statement claiming he would prefer to 'harden our schools.' My question for Chuck Fleishman is this: 'Do you want our children to feel like they are in prison instead of at school? How can you prioritize the rights of firearms over the right of our children to feel safe at school?' Prioritizing the gun lobby over the safety of our communities is an idolization of firearms and contrary to the call of Christ to peace and non-violence," Becker said.
Following the Uvalde shootings, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, said he wanted Republican lawmakers to try to work with Democrats on legislative remedies.
"We must ensure that mental health issues are taken seriously and that adequate treatment is available in urban and rural areas," U.S. Sen. Bill Hagerty, R-Tennessee, said in a statement. "We should implement other best practices at the state and local levels and make sure schools have the tools they need to protect students.
"But to be clear: using this horror to infringe upon the Second Amendment rights of law-abiding citizens — before we even know what might have prevented this tragedy — and accusing anyone who disagrees of being complicit in this abhorrent crime is not a solution that will make us safer. Criminals and mass murderers will ignore any new gun-control law just as they ignore the strict gun control laws in our nation's most violent cities."
U.S. Sen. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tennessee, also issued a statement.
"Violence against children is among the most heinous crimes imaginable," the statement said. "We must take meaningful steps to protect our children, and that begins with enhancing physical security at schools."
She said there is an estimated $100 billion sitting in the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund that she believes could be used for that.
"In addition," Blackburn said, "schools should have secured, limited entry points, and increased funding for school resource officers.
"School officials with prior military or law enforcement experience should be allowed to carry firearms. Finally, mental health must be taken seriously. We should improve access to resources and treatment for those suffering from mental illness."