NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Gov. Bill Lee announced Monday that he does not support restricting firearms or strengthening gun control laws in response to recent mass shootings in Tennessee and around the country, including the gunning down of 19 elementary school students and two teachers in Texas.
Instead, Lee joined the growing list of Republican governors who are stressing the need for more security at schools with the governor signing an executive order calling for enhancing safety measures that does not mention the word gun once.
The directive largely encourages schools to continue to implement current school safety laws, directs state agencies to issue guidance on to improve school building security, and calls for law enforcement agencies to promote more people to join law enforcement careers.
“We’re not looking at gun restriction laws in my administration right now. There’s one thing to remember, criminals don’t follow the laws. Criminals break laws,” Lee told reporters. “We can’t control what we can't control.”
Lee's remarks comes nearly two weeks after the massacre at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas. Within that timeframe, at least two mass shootings have occurred in Tennessee, with the latest leaving three dead and 14 injured from gunshot wounds in Chattanooga.
The governor sidestepped answering whether he considered gun violence a public health concern and demurred when pressed on what he considered to be the root cause of the string of shootings, saying that “I certainly don’t have the answer for a very complicated issue.”
In contrast, many Democratic governors are renewing calls for greater gun restrictions. On Monday, Democratic New York Gov. Kathy Hochul signed a new law banning those under age 21 from buying semiautomatic rifles.
Lee did say that he wants a school resource officer in every school and stressed that he established a grant program in 2019 that has since helped place more than 200 officers in public schools.
Supporters argue that police officers in schools help build trust with young people, but some critics warn that doing so typically results in Black students being disproportionately arrested and punished.
Last year, police officers shot and killed a 17-year-old Black student at a Knoxville arts magnet school during a short struggle. While the local district attorney’s eventually concluded that the officers’ actions were justified, the incident prompted Knoxville Mayor Indya Kincannon to announce that the city would reevaluate law enforcement’s role inside the schools.
Meanwhile, Lee explicitly stated that he is not contemplating arming teachers to help boost school security.
“We have not had discussions internally about moving in that direction,” he said.
Tennessee's Republican-controlled General Assembly has floated allowing teachers and other public school staffers to carry concealed weapons over objections from teacher groups and law enforcement officials, but to date, those efforts have stalled. In 2016, lawmakers passed legislation allowing full-time college campus employees to carry a concealed handgun if they alert police in advance.
In Tennessee, most adults 21 and older are allowed carry handguns without first obtaining a permit that requires clearing a state background check and training. Some Republican lawmakers attempted to lower the age to 18 during this year's legislative session, but the bill was eventually spiked before the Legislature adjourned.