As shootings hit close to home, govs wrestle with next steps

Apr 11, 2023, 2:15 PM

Gov. Bill Lee responds to questions during a news conference Tuesday, April 11, 2023, in Nashville,...

Gov. Bill Lee responds to questions during a news conference Tuesday, April 11, 2023, in Nashville, Tenn. Lee held the news conference to talk about gun control legislation and an executive order to require information for background checks on gun purchases to be updated more rapidly. (AP Photo/George Walker IV)

(AP Photo/George Walker IV)

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Two weeks after one of his wife’s closest friends was killed in a Nashville school shooting, Gov. Bill Lee on Tuesday called on Tennessee’s GOP-dominant General Assembly to pass legislation that would keep firearms away from people who could harm themselves or others.

Lee, a Republican, is the latest prominent public official to experience personal loss in a mass shooting while having to delicately balance how to use his authority to help prevent future tragedies through policy.

Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear confirmed that he, too, had lost one of his best friends when a gunman killed five people at a bank in downtown Louisville and injured eight others on Monday.

Lee told reporters Tuesday that he talked with Beshear, a Democrat, after Monday’s shooting, which claimed the life of Tommy Elliott, a lifelong friend of Beshear’s. Four other people also were killed.

On March 27, Cynthia Peak, 61, a substitute teacher and friend of Lee’s wife, Maria, was slain along with two other adults and three children at a Christian Elementary School in Nashville.

Lee’s call for a law designed to prevent people who may hurt themselves or others from acquiring firearms comes as Republicans maintain supermajority control in both the Kentucky and Tennessee statehouses, where GOP lawmakers have long resisted limiting gun access.

Neither state has adopted such a law, commonly known as so-called “red flag” laws.

To date, 19 states have red flag laws on the books — with many lawmakers enacting them after tragedies. Notably, Florida did so after the 2018 mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland that killed 17 students. Law enforcement officials had received numerous complaints about the 19-year-old gunman’s threatening statements.

In allowing courts to issue what are known as extreme risk protection orders, the laws are intended to temporarily remove guns — usually for up to a year — from people showing signs of potentially violent behavior. In many cases, family members or law enforcement must petition a court for an order.

Experts in red-flag laws contend that the laws have undoubtedly saved lives, be it in cases involving planned mass shootings, suicides or potentially deadly domestic violence cases. Yet an Associated Press investigation last year found that most U.S. states barely use red flag laws. It’s a trend blamed on a lack of awareness of the laws and resistance by some authorities to enforce them even as shootings and gun deaths soar.

But as mass shootings continue across the U.S., resistance to make significant changes to gun restrictions remains high.

In Tennessee, lawmakers have been more welcoming to strengthening school safety than addressing gun access as they prepare to finish their work in the coming weeks.

A week ago, Lee was flanked by Republican lawmakers as he called on the General Assembly to pass legislation that would better protect students attending public and private schools. Some of the same lawmakers stood by Lee’s side three years ago, when he announced his support for eliminating a requirement for people 21 and older to get a permit to carry handguns publicly in Tennessee.

The change became law in 2021. In a recent court settlement, the state agreed to drop the minimum age to 18.

On Tuesday, Lee stood alone, and he acknowledged that no lawmaker had yet agreed to sponsor the latest legislation he was proposing. Lee also did not disclose many details on his plans or what the proposed bill would look like. Instead, he said that he wanted lawmakers to come up with a solution.

“We will have to work together in order to get this done, but I believe we can. I believe we will,” Lee said.

Kentucky passed a measure earlier this year declaring the state a “Second Amendment Sanctuary,” prohibiting local and state police from enforcing any federal firearm regulation banning guns, ammunition, or firearm accessories that took effect after Jan. 21, 2021.

As he seeks reelection, Beshear allowed the bill to become law without his signature.

Previous efforts to pass a red-flag law in Kentucky have made no headway in the Legislature. Lawmakers have adjourned for the year, and currently aren’t scheduled to meet until January. But after the school shooting, local leaders urged lawmakers to take meaningful action as they warned that anyone may be impacted by gun violence.

One of them is Louisville Mayor Craig Greenberg, who also counted Tommy Elliott as a friend.

“This isn’t about partisan politics. This is about life and death. This is about preventing tragedies. You may think this will never happen to you. Never happen to any of your friends or loved ones. I used to think that,” said Louisville Mayor Craig Greenberg, who had a man storm his campaign headquarters last year and fire a weapon point-blank at him. “The sad truth is that now, no one in our city, no one in our state, no one in our country has that luxury anymore.”


Schreiner reported from Frankfort, Kentucky.

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