Lee touts parent security app amid criticism over shooting reaction

By: - June 15, 2022 7:01 am
Gov. Bill Lee signs an executive order on June 6 that reinforces existing school safety guidelines. (Photo: Sam Stockard)

Gov. Bill Lee signs an executive order on June 6 that reinforces existing school safety guidelines. (Photo: Sam Stockard)

Gov. Bill Lee’s reaction to mass shootings nationally was to sign an executive order on school security, part of it asking parents to use a SafeTN App to send tips to law enforcement and seek help for mental illness.

The recent order, which also encourages hiring more school resource officers and requires school safety inspections to make sure doors are locked, is drawing mixed reviews.

Yet even though critics blasted his recent order as a do-nothing act, the governor continued to push the plan Monday with a tweet saying, “As we continue to engage with families, educators & law enforcement about school safety, I encourage parents to download SafeTN. This @TNDeptofSafety resource allows you to confidentially report concerns of violence in your child’s school or community.”

Among other things, the app with the Department of Safety & Homeland Security enables people to make tips about criminal or suspicious behavior and to seek help on issues dealing with mental health, substance abuse and bullying.

For instance, if someone is having suicidal thoughts, they’re encouraged to call 1-855-274-7471 to talk to a counselor.

Lee made the executive order shortly after the Uvalde, Texas shooting in which 19 students and two teachers were gunned down by an 18-year-old using an AK-15-style gun. That came on the heels of the Buffalo, New York massacre in which an 18-year-old white supremacist killed 10 Black people at a grocery store using the same type of weapon. A day before the governor signed the order, Chattanooga suffered a second batch of shooting deaths in a week’s time, which led the mayor there to call for stronger gun laws.

Democrats scoffed at the governor’s action.

House Minority Leader Karen Camper of Memphis. (Photo: John Partipilo)
House Minority Leader Karen Camper of Memphis. (Photo: John Partipilo)

House Minority Leader Karen Camper noted the “list goes on and on” as mass shootings pile up dead bodies across the country.

“Governor Lee issued an executive order focusing on school safety after the tragedy in Uvalde. But as the list of tragedies shows, we need to do more than turn our attention to locking down schools and adding armed guards as if they were mini-prisons,” she said in a recent statement. “We need to have serious discussions on gun control, and we have to put ideas on the table like an assault weapons ban, raising the purchasing age to 21 and expanding background checks.”

During his recent press conference, Lee said his administration isn’t considering gun restrictions. That includes creation of a handgun registry to keep track of the number of pistols a person buys, a measure being proposed by state Rep. Vincent Dixie, a Nashville Democrat.

Republicans have been somewhat mum on Lee’s executive order. In recent years, they’ve supported putting more officers in schools, approving a grant fund that districts can tap to hire SROs. 

But they’ve typically blamed mental illness, not weapons, for the mass murders nationwide.

And in many cases, they’ve made it easier to carry weapons, backing the governor’s permit-less or “constitutional” carry legislation, which allows law-abiding residents 21 and up to carry handguns without a state permit. The law also enacted harsher punishments for felons caught with weapons.

The General Assembly and Gov. Lee established a Mental Health Trust Fund and expanded mental health treatment statewide. We have also made it harder for criminals and the mentally ill to obtain firearms.

– Lt. Gov. Randy McNally, R-Oak Ridge

 

The governor’s press conference was attended mainly by his cabinet members, though, not key lawmakers, raising the question whether they were on board with it.

Asked about the order, Lt. Gov. Randy McNally says he supports the governor’s efforts to improve school security.

McNally points out the Legislature has been “proactive,” doubling Tennessee’s annual investment in 2019 on school safety to $20 million to initiate the SRO grant program.

“In addition, the General Assembly and Gov. Lee established a Mental Health Trust Fund and expanded mental health treatment statewide,” McNally says. “We have also made it harder for criminals and the mentally ill to obtain firearms. Gov. Lee’s executive order goes a long way to amplify what he and the General Assembly have already done on this issue.”

While the governor’s action is designed to bolster previous legislative efforts, hundreds of people rallied on the War Memorial Plaza over the weekend, calling for stronger weapons laws in response to the killings.

Numerous mothers with youngsters attended the event where protesters demanded more action to protect children and called for the governor to reverse the permit-less carry law he signed in 2021. Those speaking said they felt the law is an “accident” waiting to happen.

On the federal level, the Senate negotiated changes in gun regulations with a framework that could take several steps, including setting up red flag laws that enable family members to petition courts to stop troubled family members from possessing guns and creating more rigorous background checks for gun buyers between 18 and 21. The plan also could help close the “gun show loophole” by clarifying who must register as a federal licensed gun deal for background checks.

In addition, federal funds could be made available to states to hire school resource officers and provide for mental health treatment.

Such action at the state level is unlikely, however, in part because of the politics of gun rights, a key factor in garnering votes across rural Tennessee.

Kent Syler says he's skeptical of any changes to gun laws coming in Tennessee. (Photo: mtsu.edu)
Kent Syler says he’s skeptical of any changes to gun laws coming in Tennessee. (Photo: mtsu.edu)

Despite public outrage, MTSU political science professor Kent Syler says he is unaware of voters shifting party loyalty because of Republicans’ refusal to initiate new gun laws.

A former chief of staff for Democratic Congressman Bart Gordon, Syler believes Republican political advisers are likely trying to gauge voters’ reactions to see how their candidates should respond to the spate of deadly shootings.

“It could be a little different this time because you do see a little something happening in the (U.S.) Senate,” Syler said.

The U.S. House passed stricter legislation last week, but the Senate bill is more likely to make its way through Congress because of bipartisan support.

Syler, however, doesn’t see those types of changes at the state level.

“If you look at what’s happened in Tennessee the last few legislative sessions, it’s kind of a ‘how far can you go?’ type thing in loosening gun regulations. It’s trying to find a new pro-gun bill every year,” Syler says.

Legislation to lower the permit-less carry age to 18 passed the House this year but failed to advance in the Senate only after the Republican sponsor declined to push it.

In a red state such as Tennessee, where most elected officials are concerned only with the Republican primary, gun laws are going to be “the last place” where philosophies change, Syler says.



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Sam Stockard
Sam Stockard

Sam Stockard is a veteran Tennessee reporter and editor, having written for the Daily News Journal in Murfreesboro, where he served as lead editor when the paper won an award for being the state's best Sunday newspaper two years in a row. He has led the Capitol Hill bureau for The Daily Memphian. His awards include Best Single Editorial from the Tennessee Press Association.

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