Tennessee lawmakers pass bill allowing teachers, school staff to carry concealed handguns

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Tennessee House Republicans on Tuesday passed legislation to allow some trained teachers and school staff to carry handguns despite pleas from Democrats, students, and gun-reform advocates to defeat the bill.

Dozens of protestors in the galleries began chanting "Blood on your hands" as soon as the legislation passed, prompting Tennessee House Speaker Cameron Sexton to order state troopers to clear the galleries. Many protestors continued to chant and stomp down at lawmakers as the House floor fell into chaos over parliamentary issues.

The bill could become law within weeks, as Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee can either sign it into law or allow it to become law without his signature. Lee has never vetoed a bill.

Armed teachers, who will be required to undergo training that some opponents have argued is not intensive enough, will be allowed to carry handguns in their classrooms and most campus situations without informing parents and most of their colleagues that they're armed.

The school district's director of schools, the school principal, and the chief of the "appropriate" law enforcement agency must sign off on a staff member's authority to carry a concealed handgun, so school administrators could theoretically block any teacher from going armed on campus. The legislation also requires criminal and mental health background checks.

On Tuesday, Republicans rejected several Democratic attempts to amend the bill, including requiring teachers to keep their handguns locked up except during a school security breach, holding teachers civilly liable for using their handgun on campus and informing parents when guns are on campus.

Democratic lawmaker: 'This is nothing but a bad disaster'

Democrats on Tuesday were broadly critical of the bill, both skeptical it could effectively stop a school shooter and concerned about unintended consequences, such as a teacher leaving a gun unattended for a student to find or the use of increased force during in-school discipline issues.

“This is nothing but a bad disaster and tragedy waiting to happen if we do not ensure personal responsibility," Tennessee House Democratic Caucus Chair John Ray Clemmons said. "Our children’s lives are at stake."

Republicans in favor of the measure have argued that trained staff can increase school security, particularly in rural areas where law enforcement may be more sparsely staffed with greater response times to far-flung communities. In 2023, the General Assembly funded school resource officer positions at all Tennessee schools, with the ability for SROs to go armed. Staffing issues have complicated hiring for those positions and nearly 600 schools do not have an SRO in place.

Tennessee state Rep. Ryan Williams said his bill was aimed to protect students and act as a deterrent for potential school security threats. Williams also pointed to a previous 2016 law that allowed some school districts in “distressed” counties, an economic indicator established by the state, to opt into a teacher handgun carry program, noting this isn't unprecedented in Tennessee.

"As a parent of public school kids, my kids are grown now, people ask me all the time: Have you done everything you could possibly do to make our schools safe across the state? I believe that this is the method by which we can do that," Williams said.

Williams continually pointed out that the bill is "permissive," meaning no school would be required to allow guns on campus, though the bill appears to require administrators to consider every individual who wants to carry, rather than issue a blanket school or district policy opting out from the program.

"If they did say that, they would be telling their entire community that the deterrent doesn’t exist there,” Williams said, later saying "gun-free" schools are zones where "people know they can go there and take advantage of folks."

School shooter's mom has been convicted: Victims' parents say it sends a message.

Parents of school shooting survivors express concern over the bill

The bill, HB 1202/SB 1321, sparked vocal protests in the Senate earlier this month as parents of school shooting survivors, gun-reform advocates and students have heavily lobbied against the bill. A Covenant School mom delivered a letter to the House on Monday with more than 5,300 signatures asking lawmakers to kill the bill.

Sarah Shoup Neumann's letter criticized gaps in training and burdening teachers with the responsibilities of confronting an assailant with a gun while keeping an entire classroom safe.

Earlier this month, Covenant parent Melissa Alexander begged senators to listen to parents whose children had survived a school shooting. Alexander and fellow Covenant mom Mary Joyce have repeatedly told lawmakers their children were saved by teachers who kept their classes quiet and out of sight, and the pair questioned what would happen if a teacher confronted a school shooter armed with greater firepower.

They also echoed widespread concern among the bill's opponents about the secrecy clause, which bars school administrators from revealing who in the school is armed except to relevant law enforcement and school staff who are responsible for campus security. Williams said the bill seeks to shield gun carriers' identities to protect them from related "hiring and firing decisions."

"I've heard so many times about parental consent, that it’s a parent’s responsibility to raise their child," said Tennessee state Rep. Justin Pearson, who called the bill "absolutely insane" on Tuesday. "I also think it’s a parent’s job to know if their child is being put at risk by having someone in the classroom with a firearm that another child could find, that could be discharged and actually harm them or other kids.

Opponents of the bill filled the public House gallery on Tuesday, holding signs reading things like "SHAME" and "1 Kid > All the guns."

This article originally appeared on Nashville Tennessean: Tennessee House passes bill allowing teachers to carry concealed guns