Depending on political party, status or setting, leaders from Wilson County to Washington weighed in on gun legislation, including everything from local and state laws to proposed federal regulations.
President Barack Obama pledged Wednesday to put the full weight of his office behind the nation's most aggressive gun control plan in generations as he hopes to decrease the number of mass shootings and acts of random violence that occur every day in America.
He proposed banning assault weapons, limiting ammunition magazines to 10 rounds, requiring background checks on all gun purchases, penalizing those who buy guns from unlicensed dealers, hiring 1,000 more school resource officers and spending millions more on training, research and counseling.
The sweeping package – much of which needs approval from a divided and often uncooperative Congress – came a month after a slaughter at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn., left 26 people, including 20 children, dead.
A day earlier, speaking to media following the Lebanon Friends of Scouting luncheon, Gov. Bill Haslam said he’s uncertain how the state legislature will handle the gun issue during its upcoming session that formally begins in less than two weeks. It appears, contrary to the administration’s approach, the state legislature won’t place limits on guns.
Haslam said school safety is a top concern.
“I think it’s a multi-facated issue,” he said Tuesday in Lebanon. “We’re going to have a school safety conference the Department of Education is going to do Jan. 29 to bring together educators from across the state to figure out what our plan should be for Tennessee.
“About half of our schools have SROs – school resource officers – in them. We are looking at [whether] that has made a difference. What’s the cost? Most of those are being paid by local governments. Can they do that everywhere? Are there different rules around the schools that we need to look at? That will be the purpose of the meeting two weeks [from now].
“I had a conversation with U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan a week or two ago, and they are looking at these issues as well. He said, ‘I’m not convinced putting an SRO in every school is necessarily what is going to make the difference.’”
Local governments across Wilson County have come together since the Newtown tragedy to try and add 13 SROs, which would provide one for each school in the county. The project carries with it a more than $600,000 a year price tag.
Haslam said he’s unsure if state funding would be provided if the legislature mandates an SRO in each school in Tennessee.
“Right now, we would be guessing to say that’s what would happen,” Haslam said. “The whole unfunded mandate of state to local governments is not the right path. The flip side to the argument is you have a lot of locals who are already funding school resource officers. Are they going to be penalized and others get paid for when they are paying for them? It’s actually early to say because I don’t know what the additional costs are going to be in Tennessee or if that’s the right way to spend that amount of money.”
Still another measure under consideration in the legislature would allow teachers to carry guns. On Monday, Mt. Juliet city commissioners passed a resolution that would allow teachers to take a police handgun safety course at a reduced cost.
Haslam appeared to favor this approach to school safety the least.
“That’s not something I would be in favor of,” Haslam said. “I have a daughter who is a second-grade teacher, and I have a hard time picturing her carrying to school. I understand the arguments, but I’m not certain that’s going to be the answer. I assume we wouldn’t make that mandatory where everybody would have to because not everyone has a license to carry. After that, how to you define who does and who doesn’t? What if one school has five people who are licensed to carry and want to and another doesn’t have any, are we going to make somebody there? I’m not sure how all that would work.”
Obama's announcement Wednesday set off a fierce debate on Capitol Hill, where Republicans and some Democrats oppose changes that they fear would chip away at the Second Amendment right to bear arms.
Tennessee Congressman Jim Cooper said it’s a balancing act between Second Amendment rights and keeping schools safe.
“The president is generally on the right track,” Cooper said. “We need background checks, and we need to keep weapons of war off our streets and out of our schools and workplaces. Armor-piercing bullets and large-capacity magazines are also deeply troubling. We also need to do more to improve mental health and reduce violence in the media.
“Bottom line, we are obligated to defend the right to bear arms, while also doing a better job of keeping our children and our families safe.”
Congresswoman Diane Black, however, was critical of the president’s suggestions.
“As a grandmother of elementary school children, my heart breaks for the families who lost loved ones at Sandy Hook Elementary,” Black said. "While I will thoroughly review all of the president’s recommendations, I will not support any measure that undermines our Second Amendment right to bear arms. Addressing the symptom, rather than the root of the problem, will not make our children or society safer.
“Legal barriers preventing access to mental health, the breakdown of the family and our children’s unprecedented exposure to violent media are some of the key issues that must be evaluated as we seek to understand and learn from the tragic events in Connecticut.”