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Tennessee Gov. Lee signs bills to shield gunmakers, place armed guards at schools in wake of Covenant shooting

Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee signed bills to shield gun manufacturers from lawsuits and place an armed school resource officer at every school in the state after the Covenant massacre.

Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee, a Republican, reportedly signed off on additional protections for gun and ammunition dealers, manufacturers and sellers against lawsuits in a bill last week. 

The state was thrust into the national debate on gun control after 28-year-old transgender activist and former student Audrey Elizabeth Hale used two semi-automatic rifles and a handgun to killed three 9-year-olds and three adults inside the Covenant School in Nashville on March 27. Authorities say Hale was taken out within four minutes of police arriving on campus. 

The shooter's unredacted manifesto was delivered to a judge last week but still has not been publicly released, months after the shooting. The contents could potentially provide insight on Hale's motive. 

Legislative records show that Lee signed House Bill 1189, which prohibits a person from bringing a qualified civil liability action in court in the state of Tennessee against a dealer, manufacturer, or seller of a firearm, ammunition, or a component part of a firearm or ammunition, with some exceptions. 

The legislation, which goes into effect July 1, received final approval from state Senate Republicans on April 18, less than a month after the Christian school massacre. It cleared the state House on March 6, three weeks before the shooting. 


Meanwhile, Lee's office highlighted how the Republican governor on Wednesday had signed strong school safety legislation into law, recognizing the investment of more than $230 million "to strengthen safety at public and private schools across Tennessee." 

At the beginning of the 2023 legislative session, Lee introduced a bill to strengthen physical security at every public school and enhance accountability in school safety protocols, in addition to an initial budget proposal that included $30 million for 122 Homeland Security agents to serve students at both public and private schools in every Tennessee county, his office said.

Following the Covenant shooting, the governor worked with the General Assembly to enhance that legislation and increase funding in the Fiscal Year 23-24 budget to place an armed school resource officer (SRO) at every Tennessee public school, boost physical school security at public and private schools, and provide additional mental health resources for Tennesseans.

"Nothing is more important than Tennessee students and teachers returning home from school safely each day," Lee said in a statement. "Every year since 2019, we’ve worked with the General Assembly to prioritize school safety, and this year, we’ve passed significant measures to fund an armed SRO for every public school, enhance mental health support, and boost physical security at public and private schools across Tennessee." 


Lee's decision on Thursday to sign the other bill, which spells out a half-dozen situations in which gun and ammunition companies could be held civilly liable in Tennessee state courts and exempting others, comes as he keeps pushing for the same Republican lawmakers, who hold super majorities in the House and Senate, to pass a proposal that aims to keep guns away from people who could harm themselves or others.

The governor plans to call lawmakers back into an August special session "to strengthen public safety and preserve constitutional rights" after they adjourned last month without taking up his "temporary mental health order of protection" proposal.

The expansion of civil immunity for gun companies was hardly in doubt after lawmakers passed it. Lee has never issued a veto, which lawmakers would have the numbers to override. However, he occasionally has allowed bills to take effect without his signature to signal his concerns or disapproval of a policy, The Associated Press noted. 

Three Senate Republicans voted against the legislation, which came before them in the middle of weeks of public pressure, protests and marches to pass gun control reforms. Only Democrats opposed the bill in the House vote before the shooting. 

"With regards to the law, the GOP super majority is more focused on protecting firearms and manufacturers and dealers than protecting our children and communities," Rep. John Ray Clemmons, the House Democratic caucus chairman from Nashville, said in an interview with the AP on Monday.


Adding to the political drama, three state Democratic lawmakers, championed by the White House as the "Tennessee Three," faced an expulsion vote for joining a horde of gun control protesters at the state Capitol. The one who narrowly survived expulsion, Rep. Gloria Johnson, who is White, suggested race was a factor in the Republican controlled legislature voting out her colleagues, Reps. Justin Pearson and Justin Jones, who are both Black. Pearson and Jones, who, unlike Johnson, used bullhorns to disrupt a legislative session, were reinstated on an interim basis. 

All three were invited to meet with President Biden in the Oval Office. 

The Associated Press contributed to this report. 

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