Metro Nashville Police Chief John Drake addresses members of the media on Monday, March 27, after a school shooting at a private elementary school in Nashville. (Photo: John Partipilo)
Even before six people died Monday in a mass shooting at The Covenant School, Metro Police Chief John Drake pushed for passage of legislation designed to stop people from leaving weapons loose in vehicles.
Drake sent a letter to Rep. Clay Doggett, chairman of the House Criminal Justice Subcommittee on March 21 seeking support of House Bill 1233, which would require gun owners to secure weapons in parked vehicles and boats amid a spike in gun thefts over the last four years.
“With gun ownership comes serious responsibility on several fronts, including securing guns, particularly in vehicles, so that they do not come into the hands of thieves/violent criminals,” Drake said in the letter. “We in law enforcement have a problem in this regard.”
According to Drake, vehicle gun thefts jumped to 1,378 in Metro Nashville in 2022 from 848 in 2019 and to 2,740 last year in Memphis from 1,159 in 2019.
Many are stolen by teens and wind up being used in violent crimes, such as the 9mm pistol juveniles pulled on Belmont graduate and musician Kyle Yorlets when he was shot to death in February 2019, the chief wrote.
Sponsored by Rep. Caleb Hemmer, D-Nashville, the bill was scheduled to be considered Tuesday in Doggett’s committee but was postponed along with all other gun-related bills in the wake of the shooting deaths at the private Christian school in Green Hills.
The shooting took place the same day an East Tennessee judge approved an agreement between Attorney General Jonathan Skrmetti and a California firearms group that 18- to 20-year-olds in Tennessee be allowed to carry handguns as part of the state’s “constitutional carry” law, according to the Associated Press. Skrmetti reached an agreement rather than defend the state in the lawsuit, claiming U.S. Supreme Court decisions on gun laws gave him no choice.
With gun ownership comes serious responsibility on several fronts, including securing guns, particularly in vehicles, so that they do not come into the hands of thieves/violent criminals. We in law enforcement have a problem in this regard.
– Metro Nashville Police Chief John Drake
Hemmer visited Covenant Presbyterian Church Monday evening and remained emotional Tuesday morning. One of the children killed earlier that day attended church with his family.
“This is very serious times, and we’re trying to do anything, something to ensure our community’s safer. We know we have a problem,” Hemmer said. “This is about personal responsibility. It’s about gun safety, it’s about our kids, our communities, and we’re just desperate for change and for a realization that we need to do better.”
Hemmer’s bill, which is being sponsored in the Senate by Sen. Jeff Yarbro, D-Nashville, is one of several gun-related bills but is the only one designed to provide more gun safety.
Doggett, a Pulaski Republican, opposes the measure. He was not available Tuesday morning for comment.
Hemmer contends the problem stretches back 10 years when the Legislature passed the so-called “guns in trunks” law that loosened the restrictions for possessing guns on private property. At that time, Metro Police reported only about 230 gun thefts from vehicles annually.
“This is urgent. If now is not a call to action, I don’t know what we can be motivated by,” Hemmer said. He declined to speculate whether postponement of gun bills Tuesday was a delay tactic.
Hemmer’s bill makes a gun storage violation a Class C misdemeanor punishable only by completion of a court-approved firearm safety course. No fines or jail time would be allowed.
A person whose gun is stolen also would be required to report the loss to local authorities within 24 hours.
Among the other gun measures circulating is one that would lower the permitless carry age to 18 from 21 for “law-abiding” residents.
The House version of that bill, HB1005, sponsored by Rep. Rusty Grills, R-Newbern, was deferred last week in the finance subcommittee. The Senate version, SB1503, passed the Senate Judiciary Committee last week on a 7-2 vote after language was removed allowing long guns, or rifles, to be carried similarly to pistols. Sponsored by Sen. John Stevens, R-Huntingdon, the measure is to be considered next by the Senate finance committee.
Grills said Monday he and other lawmakers wanted to give families time to grieve and hadn’t decided how to proceed in light of the shooting incident.
Stevens, asked if he would consider slowing down or weakening the bill after the shooting, said he would not “politicize” the matter.
House Speaker Cameron Sexton also said Monday he wants to let families “breathe a little bit” and “see what facts come out of this before we start jumping to conclusions.”
Democrats, however, were adamant Monday that the Legislature should dial back efforts to loosen gun restrictions after passing the governor’s permitless carry bill in 2021.
Moms Demand Action rallied Tuesday at the Cordell Hull Building against gun violence, calling for legislators to stop passing bills that put guns in more people’s hands.
Rep. Bo Mitchell, D-Nashville, went to the church school Monday because his legislative assistant, Elaine Eisinger, has a child who attends Covenant. He was there almost three hours waiting with parents to be told whether their child was alive.
“That experience is hard to get out of your mind, and like I said last night on the (House) floor, when they told that lady she wasn’t going to see her child anymore, the wails that came out of her, if all my colleagues got to hear that, that would change their mind a little bit,” Mitchell said. “They’d see how precious is. It’s worth a whole lot more than a damn assault rifle.”
Senate Democrats were highly emotional Monday evening.
“Sandy Hook, Parkland, now Covenant, it’s never going to get easier,” state Sen. Charlane Oliver said. “Nine years old. They’ll never see their 10th birthday. These kids deserve better than this.”
Oliver, a Nashville Democrat, accused Republicans of “running away” from the problem and noted the Senate didn’t hold a moment of silence Monday for the shooting victims, three of whom were adults and three 9 years old.
State Sen. London Lamar, who sponsored a failed bill that would have required Shelby County residents to obtain state permits to carry handguns, was even more outspoken.
“The blood of these children is on my colleagues’ hands. They have contributed to the increase in gun violence in this state,” Lamar said. “We have one of the highest rates of gun violence in the country here in Tennessee. Now we just added six, excuse me, seven people to that number.”
Democrats said they don’t want to hear about the need for more prayers but, instead, policies to reduce gun violence.
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