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The Vanderbilt Hustler

The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University.
Since 1888
The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University

The Vanderbilt Hustler

The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University.
The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University

The Vanderbilt Hustler

The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University.

Gov. Lee strengthens background checks, calls for red flag laws in wake of Covenant School shooting and student protests

Students have been protesting for two weeks in favor of gun reform.
Students+protest+at+the+Tennessee+Capitol+on+April+3%2C+2023.
Amelia Simpson
Students protest at the Tennessee Capitol on April 3, 2023. (Hustler Multimedia/Amelia Simpson)

UPDATED: This piece was updated on April 12, 2023, at 1 p.m. CDT to include a response from a March For Our Lives representative.

Governor Bill Lee signed an executive order today calling for red flag laws and strengthening background checks in Tennessee. The move comes three weeks after the Covenant School shooting, which killed three children and three faculty members — two of whom were family friends with Lee, and ongoing gun reform protests organized by Vanderbilt students

One week ago, the Tennessee Senate deferred all gun legislation to 2024.

Lee told the media that it will provide additional safety to Tennesseans. Specifically, it will require the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation to investigate firearm purchasing systems in Tennessee. Criminal activity will have to be reported by law enforcement to the TBI within 72 hours of it occurring, with the courts responsible for promptly submitting precise information to the TBI. Currently, there are no state background check laws. Federal law requires background checks for guns sold by licensed sellers.

“This is our moment to lead and to give the people of Tennessee what they deserve,” Lee said.

“Red flag” laws permit police and family members to petition a court to temporarily confiscate firearms from a person who they think may be a danger to themselves or others. A red flag law — Senate Bill 1567 — was introduced earlier this legislative session but has since been deferred.

All three guns — two of which were assault rifles — that the Covenant School shooter used were legally purchased; they owned four other legally-purchased guns. They were also being treated for mental health conditions.

Rep. Justin Jones (D-Nashville) and Rep. Justin Pearson (D-Memphis) were both expelled from their positions in the Tennessee House on April 6 for their participation in a gun reform protest organized by Vanderbilt students at the Capitol on March 30. The House voted to not expel Rep. Gloria Johnson (D-Knoxville) for her involvement. Jones was unanimously voted back in to serve as the interim representative by the Nashville City Council on Monday. Pearson’s vote is on Wednesday at 1:30 p.m. CDT. 

Sophomore Zack Maaieh, a volunteer leader of Vanderbilt’s chapter of Students Demand Action, stated that he is optimistic about the EO and its potential to initiate gun reform legislation. He spoke of the power of youth protestors. 

“Governor Lee’s announcement proves that when young people step up and demand action, we can’t be ignored,” Maaieh said in a message to The Hustler. “We will keep pushing lawmakers until [a red flag law] is introduced, passed, and signed into law. It is long overdue for lawmakers to do their part to prevent gun violence.”

March For Our Lives Legal Associate Brynn Jones, a junior, echoed Maaieh’s sentiments about student activism.

“Background checks are a common sense policy that keeps people safe. Lee’s action proves how impactful the last two weeks of continuous activism, especially by students, in Nashville has been,” Jones said in a message to The Hustler. “However, I’m disappointed that it took him six deaths, two weeks and a national news story to announce this decision.”

Jones also expressed doubt that red flag laws will be passed in Tennessee, even with Lee’s EO.

“[The Tennessee House of Representatives’] actions the last few weeks, especially their response to the Covenant shooting being to arm schools even more, shows that they are not looking at this as a gun issue,” Jones said. “They are putting bandaids over bullet holes, and at the same time they are restricting the rights of trans youth and LGBTQ+ Tennesseans.”

Lee said he hopes the EO will receive bipartisan support in the Tennessee legislature. Previously, Lt. Gov. Randy McNally (R-Oak Ridge) expressed support for issuing a protection order like Lee’s EO. Senate Minority Leader Raumesh Akbari (D-Memphis) praised Lee for signing the EO before the legislative session adjourns on May 6.   

“These are smart and effective solutions to keep kids and families safe,” Akbari said about the EO. “We are ready to work with the governor and the supermajority to get something done.”

A student representative from Vanderbilt College Democrats did not respond to The Hustler’s requests for comments; a student representative from Vanderbilt College Republicans declined to comment on the matter. 

Following the mass school shooting in Uvalde last May, Lee questioned the effectiveness of “red flag” laws. At the time, Lee pointed to how the laws are used very infrequently in the 19 states that have implemented them. After the Covenant School shooting, McNally expressed support for the “red flag” law; Lee has not taken a stance on specific gun control legislation following the shooting. 

“Most practical, thoughtful people believe that individuals who are a threat to themselves or to others shouldn’t have access to weapons,” Lee said in a March 30 interview with The Tennessean.

At the time, he stated that he was “not looking at” passing gun control laws in Tennessee.

“Criminals break laws,” Lee said in a July 2022 press conference after signing an Executive Order to increase school safety. “We can’t control what they do.”

Lee proposed a budget expansion on April 3 to allocate a total of $205 million toward school safety and mental health intervention methods. Included in this proposed package is $30 million for a Homeland Security network of school safety specialists and $140 million to station a School Resource Officer at every Tennessee public school and some private schools. The latter provision is an expansion of SB 0274, which also would require every public school to annually file safety plans.

Two days later, the Democratic representatives in the Tennessee House proposed a gun reform slate, which included SB 1567, stricter background check regulations, a permit requirement and bans on bump stocks and large capacity magazines. 

“We have an obligation — I have an obligation — to do what I can and work together with leaders across this community to address people’s concerns and to protect our kids in whatever way we can,” Lee told the Tennessean. 

Katherine Oung contributed reporting to this piece.

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About the Contributors
Rachael Perrotta
Rachael Perrotta, Former Editor-in-Chief
Rachael Perrotta ('24) is from Cranston, R.I., and majored in cognitive studies, political science and communication of science and technology and minored in gender and sexuality studies in Peabody College. She was also previously Senior Advisor and News Editor. If she's not pressing you for a comment, she's probably trying to convince you that she's over 5 feet tall, cheering on the Red Sox or wishing Nashville had a beach. She can be reached at [email protected].
Claire Gatlin
Claire Gatlin, Former Life Editor
Claire Gatlin ('24) is a student in Peabody College studying human and organizational development and political science. In her free time, she enjoys going to concerts, reading and rollerblading. You can reach her at [email protected].
Amelia Simpson
Amelia Simpson, Staff Photographer and Graphics Staffer
Amelia Simpson ('25) hails from Brisbane, Australia and is a student in the College of Arts and Sciences majoring in public policy. Outside of her work in the Hustler’s multimedia sections, Amelia is a member of the club rowing and equestrian teams. You can reach her at [email protected]
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