Rally to Support Strengthening Gun Laws, Market Square, Knoxville, April 2023
A protest on Market Square yesterday drew between four hundred and five hundred people expressing their anger at Tennessee’s gun laws and the violence that our state repeatedly experiences. The impetus for the most recent protest was the shooting and killing of six people, including three staff members and three nine-year-old children at Covenant School in Nashville on March 27. The protest was organized in solidarity with a new non-partisan group called Voices for a Safer Tennessee. The group planned a human-chain protest in Nashville for the same time.
According to the group’s website, they are advocating for extreme risk laws, which could have allowed law enforcement to take the weapons of the Covenant school shooter based on reported concerns from her parents. Current Tennessee laws do not allow for confiscation. They also advocate for universal background checks which help determine if a person is legally eligible to purchase a gun. A background check is not required in Tennessee to carry a handgun. Background checks are to made at the point of purchase of any licensed dealer, but 60% of sales in the U.S. are not by a licensed dealer. The group also calls for gun storage laws, and for a requirement to report lost and stolen guns.
In many states, these goals would be almost laughable in their timidity. In Tennessee, with our Republican super-majority seemingly determined to remove any restrictions on gun ownership and possession, the goals might be too ambitious.
In a faint glimmer of hope in that direction, Governor Lee, in the wake of the shootings which killed a friend, issued an executive order strengthening some aspects of background checks, and he called on the legislature to pass some version of a Red Flag law, which some Republican legislatures in other states have passed. So far, the legislators have remained silent in response to his call.
As of 2021, Tennessee does not require a permit to carry a gun. No training in gun-use or gun safety is required in the state. Over the objections of many in law enforcement, the legislators have continued to introduce bills that would loosen gun laws, including two in this session that would allow permit carriers to bring their guns to college campuses and to allow school staff members to carry a gun.
Tennessee Highway Patrol Col. Matt Perry testified in 2021 (when carry without permit was passed) that he was worried about law enforcement interacting with residents with high-capacity ammo weapons. “Because of constitutional carry, we can’t ask them who they are, what they’re doing, [or] why they have it. We just have to let it happen.”
There are still some prohibitions around guns in the state. “The state prohibits guns from being brought to locations like schools, any place that serves alcohol, public parks, courts and government buildings, according to the law. Private businesses are also allowed to prohibit firearms from their properties and must make it clear with signage, according to the law.”
In fact, as I was surprised to learn, Tennessee is not, according to World Population Review’s analysis, among the group of states with the most lax gun laws. Not that they estimate our laws as strong: Tennessee has the 29th strongest gun laws in the country, ranking one spot above those who were given the grade of “F” for gun safety laws. Tennessee got a “D-.”
The states with the loosest laws and/or the highest rate of gun ownership are also among the deadliest to live in. Seven of the ten states with the highest mortality rates from guns have the laxest laws and the highest rate of gun ownership. Increased availability of guns produces more deaths by guns.
Tennessee is a slight outlier, though not in a great way. We rank 29th in the strictness of our gun laws, fourteenth in gun ownership per capita, and yet, we rank number ten in deaths by firearms. Tennessee also ranks fifth in the U.S. in the broader measure of homicides. The image of our state as a violent place isn’t what we’d like to promote, but it is hard to deny.
The actions of our state legislators are also gaining unwanted attention for the state. If there was a decisive action in the wake of the shooting in Nashville, it was the legislature expelling two of the three members who disrupted proceedings in the chamber for about five minutes as they engaged the protestors who were outside the capitol. Both were black, a fact that news organizations around the world have noted. SNL skewered the state for that.
More remarkable was that it marked the fourth consecutive week SNL had featured Tennessee politics. Previous topics there included the state’s new drag law, Lieutenant Governor Randy McNally’s flirty remarks with a gay man online, even though he has strongly supported anti-LGBTQ laws, and Rep. Andy Ogles’ family Christmas card, which featured a photo of his family, children included, displaying their guns.
Our East Tennessee Congressman, Tim Burchett, said, “we’re not gonna fix it. Criminals are gonna be criminals,” adding that he didn’t see “any real role” for Congress to play in reducing gun violence, other than to “mess things up.” He continued, “I don’t think you’re gonna stop the gun violence. I think you gotta change people’s hearts.” The Hill also noted that “When asked about how to protect children, like his own daughter, while in school, Burchett said he has opted to homeschool his daughter.”
While remaining silent on Governor Lee’s modest proposal, it seems unlikely our legislature will do anything that could be construed as limiting gun rights. There are many ironies, but the strongest may be that the legislature has made “protecting children” a centerpiece of its anti-drag and other legislation, while the number one killer of children in the United States is gun violence and accidents.
After encircling Market Square and singing “What a Wonderful World,” in honor of the fact that it was the favorite song of one of the children killed in Nashville, and then “Proud to Be an American,” the group marched along Gay Street before dispersing. Will it matter? Given that more guns and looser laws means more deaths by guns, what will our legislature do? And will voters pay attention?
(Ed. Note: Please remember that while all opinions are welcome, being rude or cruel to others in your comments is not. Those comments will be deleted.)