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Senate clears gallery, passes bill to arm Tennessee teachers

Covenant parents emotional in wake of vote

By Sam Stockard, Tennessee Lookout - April 10, 2024
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Gun Violence
FILE - A handgun from a collection of illegal guns is reviewed during a gun buyback event in Brooklyn, N.Y., May 22, 2021. The Supreme Court, Thursday, June 23, 2022, struck down a restrictive New York gun law in a major ruling for gun rights. (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews, FIle)

Minutes after clearing the gallery of people opposed to pro-gun legislation, the Senate passed a bill Tuesday allowing teachers to go armed at school.

The bill’s passage came a little more than a year after six people, including three 9-year-olds, were killed in a mass shooting at The Covenant School, a private Christian facility in the Green Hills neighborhood of Nashville.

The mass shooting in late March 2023 brought cries for gun control and even a measure to close the autopsy records of children. But Covenant parents opposed the measure to let teachers be armed, which includes a requirement they go through 40 hours of yearly training, psychological evaluations, background checks and approval by the local law enforcement agency and school officials.

The House version is awaiting action after going through committees in April 2023.

About 45 minutes before the Senate vote, Lt. Gov. Randy McNally cleared the gallery as the public hissed, snapped fingers, then started hollering.

Most of the Covenant parents in the gallery opted to leave after the uproar in reaction to comments by Senate Minority Leader Raumesh Akbari of Memphis, who pointed out, “A teacher is not allowed to put a rainbow flag on her desk, but she’s allowed to carry a gun.” She was referring to a House-passed bill restricting flags in schools.

Covenant parents were so shaken by the gallery’s clearing they needed time to gather their emotions afterward.

“As mothers, we’re very disappointed at how things went today, and we can absolutely do way better,” said Covenant parent Mary Joyce.

Yet Covenant mother Melissa Alexander said the group is continuing to have “productive conversations” with lawmakers in an effort to bolster students’ safety. She declined to say what measures the group is supporting.

“All we can do is keep showing up and sharing our stories,” Alexander said, noting she believes her child was spared in last year’s shooting because the teacher made sure students were quiet.

When the Senate floor debate resumed, Sen. London Lamar, D-Memphis, chastised Republican colleagues as she held her baby.

“It is really hard as a new mom to stand here and talk about a piece of legislation that puts my son’s life at risk,” Lamar said.

She noted that some senators had joked as troopers cleared the gallery, in what should have been a somber situation.

Senators turned down amendments that would have prohibited unlicensed staff from being armed at school and would have required de-escalation training.

Democrats argued that the bill could create a situation in which a teacher could shoot a student, whether accidentally or on purpose to break up a fight.

Criticism also centered on provisions in the bill that would keep parents from knowing whether their children’s teacher was carrying a gun. In addition, sheriff’s offices and school districts would be immune to lawsuits in cases of teacher-related shootings.

“What I’m worried about as a parent, I want my child’s teacher to stay with the children and not get involved with a counter-offensive,” state Sen. Jeff Yarbro, D-Nashville, said during debate.

Sen. Paul Bailey, the bill’s sponsor, countered that confidentiality would ensure that someone who wants to commit a school shooting wouldn’t know whether the school personnel they encounter are armed. He also said the training requirements should avert accidental shootings.

Sen. Ken Yager, a Kingston Republican who supported the bill, also argued that the measure is needed in rural areas where counties might have only two deputies on duty.

“We are not trying to shoot a student but trying to protect a student from an active shooter,” Yager said.

This story was originally published in the Tennessee Lookout


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