After mass shootings, Republicans expand access to guns

Parishioners pray at a makeshift memorial near the entrance of the Covenant Presbyterian Church in Nashville, Tennessee on Wednesday, March 29, 2023. (Desiree Rios/The New York Times)

After a mass shooting at a Texas elementary school last year prompted calls for new gun restrictions, Republican-led states across the country went the other way. One of them was Tennessee, where the governor insisted that stricter gun laws would never deter wrongdoers.

“We can’t control what they do,” Gov. Bill Lee said.

Tennessee lawmakers have instead lobbied to make firearms even more accessible, proposing bills this year to, among other things, arm more teachers and allow college students to carry guns on campus.

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Then came Monday’s attack on Covenant School in Nashville, Tennessee, in which a gunman armed with multiple weapons killed six people, including three children. On the same day, a federal judge signed a state settlement that allowed people as young as 18 to carry a handgun without a license.

Amid the grisly cadence of multiple mass shootings that have led to calls for greater gun control, Republicans have steadily expanded access to guns inside state buildings.

In Kentucky, Ohio, Nebraska, Texas and Virginia this year Republicans have pushed to restrict gun-free zones, scrap background checks and reverse red-flag laws aimed at removing firearms from those who pose a threat to themselves or represent others.

“I think it’s only gotten worse over the years,” Democratic North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper said in an interview. On Wednesday, his state’s Republican-controlled legislature overrode its veto, eliminating a centuries-old handgun licensing system.

25 states do not require a license to carry a handgun — nine more than in 2020.

“This was the fastest state-level gun expansion we’ve seen,” said Jacob Charles, an associate professor specializing in gun law at the Pepperdine Caruso School of Law.

Perhaps nowhere is the trend toward expanding gun access more evident than in Tennessee, a state at the crossroads of the Appalachian Mountains, Upper South and Lower Midwest, whose gun policy typifies Red America’s rapid rightward movement on gun regulations.

In recent years, Republicans in the Tennessee state legislature — a 20-minute drive from the site of this week’s mass shooting — have passed a series of measures that have weakened regulations, eliminated some permit requirements and allowed most residents to be loaded Carrying weapons in public, openly or concealed, without permission, training, or special background checks.

The decisions came after a representative from the Tennessee Sheriffs’ Association stood up at a legislative hearing to oppose the permitting measure, saying it would make it more difficult for law enforcement to determine if an individual is unlawfully carrying a gun.

Jerry Sexton, then a Republican state official, accused him of “wanting to violate the rights of us as a people.”

“I’m offended by the fact that you’re doing this,” Sexton said. “I’m saying you need to step back and let citizens be citizens.”

Republican leaders across the country have rushed to polish their firearm credentials, aware that even suggesting they don’t uphold gun rights could have political ramifications.

A Georgia congressman running for office in 2020 with shields wielding an AR-15 rifle. Former President Donald Trump made a point of appearing in person at the National Rifle Association convention in Houston in May 2022, not long after the shooting in Uvalde, Texas. Other candidates have repeatedly used guns in television commercials.

Rep. Andy Ogles, a Republican whose district includes the Covenant School where this week’s mass shooting took place, posted a 2021 Christmas photo of his family posing with guns. The photo drew criticism this week in the wake of the killings.

“Why would I regret a photo of my family exercising my right to bear arms?” he said.

Missouri last year enacted a measure barring local law enforcement from cooperating with federal agencies in many gun investigations. A federal judge this month ruled the law unconstitutional.

The NRA remains a strong force on the right despite a recent slump in fundraising amid questions about the wasteful spending habits of its senior leadership in the Beltway. And the gun rights movement itself has become both more diffuse and influential, with local groups — including the Gun Owners of America and the conservative Dorr Brothers network in the Midwest — gaining a following and pressuring Republican lawmakers from the right.

In the Nashville murder, the shooter’s parents — identified by police as Audrey E. Hale — had reported that their child was under medical care and “shouldn’t own a gun,” said Chief John Drake of the Nashville Metro Police Department. The shooter had purchased seven firearms from five local gun stores and used three of them during the attack.

Republican initiatives were not limited to statehouses. In Congress, on the same day as the Tennessee shooting, House Judiciary Committee Chairman Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, postponed a hearing in which he planned to advocate for a Republican bill to ban one of the modest regulatory efforts of the Biden administration, a requirement to register so-called stabilizing braces, which allow semi-automatic pistols to be rested against the shoulder for easier and more accurate firing.

Pictures of the guns used in the Nashville shooting appeared to show that the killer, according to police officials, owned such braces and may have used them in the attack. It wouldn’t have been illegal to own one — owners of the suspenders must register their guns by the end of May and pay a $200 fee to comply with the change.

“Democrats wanted to turn this tragic event into a political cause,” Jordan told reporters at the Capitol Monday night. He said he had no plans to withdraw the measure or slow down his push to relax gun laws.

One of the Tennessee Senators, Marsha Blackburn, did not mention the gun control ideas but urged Congress to find ways to increase safety in schools.

Lee vowed to “act to prevent this from happening again” in Tennessee, but gave no details on how he planned to do so. A key committee in the state General Assembly decided to postpone consideration of gun-related bills until next week, and Senator Todd Gardenhire, a Republican from Chattanooga, said, “We must respect these victims and the families of the victims.” “

Researchers studying the impact of mass shootings on gun policy found a few years ago that states with Republican-controlled legislatures were more likely to relax gun laws in the year after a mass shooting in their state than in other years.

Democrat-led states have long pursued stricter gun control measures.

In Connecticut, after the 2012 Newtown school shooting, state legislatures expanded bans on assault weapons, banned high-capacity magazines and introduced universal background checks. Oregon voters last year approved a sweeping gun control measure that requires gun buyers to obtain a permit and complete a gun safety course that is currently being challenged in court.

Other measures under consideration this year include efforts in Minnesota to make it easier to take guns away from people deemed a threat, a plan in Oregon to ban untraceable home-assembled guns, and a Michigan law to punish those who leave guns in places accessible to children.

State Assemblyman Bo Mitchell, a Nashville Democrat, has spoken openly about several bills currently under consideration in the Tennessee legislature that would expand access to firearms, and instead hopes lawmakers will respond to the recent mass shooting with measures such as “expanded ‘ could respond to background checks and a ban on assault rifles. The state, he noted, has been dealing with a spate of mass shootings and rising gun deaths among youth.

“If guns have made us safer, Tennessee should be one of the safest states in the country,” he said. “Instead, we have one of the worst gun violence problems in America.”

Hundreds of people gathered Wednesday in Public Square Park in downtown Nashville for a vigil to honor those killed during this week’s shooting, cupping their hands around flickering white candles or shielding their eyes from the bright sun.

They hugged and wiped away tears, some singing along as musician Ketch Secor performed “Will the Circle Be Unbroken?”

The seven children of Mike Hill, a beloved guardian killed in the shooting, joined First Lady Jill Biden, Mayor John Cooper, local leaders and law enforcement officials.

They left flowers on the courthouse steps and at City Hall.

c.2023 The New York Times Company

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