While Gov. Bill Lee and other Republican leaders called for prayer for the victims of the Texas elementary school shooting, state Rep. John Ray Clemmons urged the governor to take several steps, including executive action to repeal Tennessee's permitless carry law.
Clemmons was emotional in a Wednesday press conference as he outlined several steps he felt the governor should take in the wake of the Robb Elementary School massacre that killed 19 children and two teachers and left 17 more injured. It happened less than two weeks after a purported white supremacist killed 10 Black people at a Buffalo, New York, grocery store.
Clemmons, a Nashville Democrat, called on the governor to lower flags at the Capitol to half-staff, avoid a trip to the National Rifle Association convention in Texas, withhold funds for lawmakers to go to the convention and use his emergency executive authority to freeze open-carry laws and the "guns in trunks" law, as well as "discriminatory" laws such as the "critical race theory" measure that prohibits teachers from relating "divisive" racial concepts. Clemmons contends those types of laws can lead to mass shootings.
In addition, Clemmons called for Lee to order a special session and bring lawmakers back to Nashville to work on the "public health crisis" of gun violence, including bolstering mental health treatment and limiting domestic violence offenders' access to firearms.
"Let's take that action now, not later, not after another shooting, not after more deaths, now," Clemmons said.
The deadly event in Texas spurred politicians across the nation to call for action or to at least take a stand.
Earlier Wednesday, House Republican Caucus Chairman Jeremy Faison, of Cosby, made a Twitter statement saying, "Keeping our children safe is not an option," though it was unclear whether he made a grammatical error. Faison noted he reached out to the Tennessee Department of Education to find a way to place a school resource officer in every school in the state.
Numerous school districts already have school resource officers through an agreement with local sheriffs' offices. But smaller counties with limited financial resources struggle to place officers in school settings.
The governor doesn't seem likely to heed much of Clemmons' request. Lee sought the permitless carry bill and signed it into law last year at the Beretta gun factory in Gallatin with numerous Republican lawmakers looking on.
In response to Clemmons, the governor's office said Lee issued an order early Wednesday to lower the flags at the Capitol. Lee is not slated to attend the NRA convention this year, according to the office.
"The Texas school shooting is a horrific tragedy, and we remain committed to ensuring schools are secured for the safety of students and teachers," spokeswoman Casey Black said.
She pointed out the governor announced a new investment in school safety three years ago when he proposed $40 million for a grant fund to enable local districts to hire school resource officers. At that time, some 500 schools didn't have officers.
According to Black, many districts have used the extra funding to increase violence intervention programs and more building security. She did not have a number of schools that have used the grant fund to hire a resource officer.
The Lee administration is also increasing coordination between the state departments of Education, Safety & Homeland Security, and Mental Health & Substance Abuse to keep schools safe, she said. In addition, a Tennessee Mental Health Crisis Hotline is available 24 hours a day throughout the year at 855-274-7471.
In a Tuesday Twitter post shortly after the shooting incident, the governor said, "Maria and I are heartbroken by the horrific tragedy in Uvalde, Texas and join the nation in mourning the loss of innocent lives. We lift up their families in prayer and thank all the first responders who acted quickly."
Lee's statement was similar to one issued by U.S. Sen. Marsha Blackburn, a Tennessee Republican, who said on Twitter, "Horrified and heartbroken to learn of the significant loss of life in the shooting in Uvalde, Texas. Please join me in lifting their loved ones up in prayer. Thank you to the local first responders working on the scene."
Likewise, U.S. Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell and Democratic Sen. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, said they were "horrified and heartbroken" by the incident at Robb Elementary School and urged prayers for families and first responders.
The Tennessee governor is catching criticism from Democrats for signing the permitless carry bill into law last year in spite of opposition from Tennessee's law enforcement community, which spoke against it in committee hearings.
Meanwhile, critics of the "guns in trunks" bill, which was passed in 2013, claim it has led to a proliferation of weapons on the streets because of an increase in thefts. The law allows employers to prohibit guns on company property, yet employees with a handgun-carry permit – when the law passed – were allowed to store guns in a locked vehicle as long as they kept weapons out of sight.
School-related murders appear to have skyrocketed during the last 25 years.
Since a shooting at Columbine in 1999, 554 children, educators and school staff have been victims of gun violence, 185 of them dying, according to Clemmons.
However, more students run into gun violence at home and in their neighborhoods, Clemmons said, noting Tennessee is among the national leaders in firearm mortality rates, with the rate increasing by 28% from 2010 to 2018, compared to the national rate of 17%.
Gun suicides went up 15% in that time, while gun homicides increased by 59%, he said, with African-American and Latino communities seeing a disproportionate impact.
At the same time, gun sales are rising dramatically, with Americans buying nearly 20 million guns in 2021.
Pointing toward the ineffectiveness of the "guns in trunks laws," from 2011 to 2020, the state ranked No. 1 nationally in gun thefts from vehicles, according to Clemmons. Metro Nashville Police reported more than 70% of all guns stolen in 2022 were taken from vehicles, he said.
Despite such statistics, the House passed legislation this year allowing 18-year-olds to be eligible for permitless carry, which applies now to all 21-year-olds who are considered law-abiding citizens, without a felony conviction or a domestic violence charge.
The bill's sponsor, Rep. Chris Todd, R-Madison County, told House members 18-year-olds have rights given by God and the U.S. Constitution to carry weapons without a permit. The measure, sponsored in the Senate by retiring Sen. Mike Bell, R-Riceville, never made it to the floor in the upper chamber for a vote.
Read more at TennesseeLookout.com.