In the wake of a deadly school shooting last month, Republican lawmakers in Tennessee awarded final passage Tuesday to a proposal that would further protect gun and ammunition dealers, manufacturers and sellers against lawsuits.
The Senate's 19-9 vote sends the bill to Republican Gov. Bill Lee, despite pushback from Democratic lawmakers saying their GOP counterparts are trying to shield gun companies just weeks after the Nashville school shooting that killed six people, including three 9-year-olds.
The final vote came as Lee's administration was still trying to drum up enough support among lawmakers in his party to pass legislation to keep firearms away from people who could harm themselves or others. The fate of that kind of measure remains uncertain.
Lawmakers are hurrying to finish a legislative session as soon as this week while receiving national scrutiny over the expulsion of two young Black lawmakers — who are now reinstated — over a House floor gun control protest. Students, parents and others have also applied pressure for weeks to pass gun safety measures.
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Democratic Sen. London Lamar, a Memphis lawmaker, said it's “disrespectful timing” to push through protections for gun companies while people continue to march at the Capitol for gun control changes. The civil liabilities bill passed just ahead of a protest in which people formed a human chain through Nashville to the Capitol in support of gun control measures.
“I am challenging you not to pass this bill because we need to do more to protect citizens from gun violence than the people making the guns that people can use to kill more people," Lamar had said.
In the demonstration, scores of people gathered in the late afternoon along a three-mile route from the children's hospital at Vanderbilt University, where victims of the school shooting were taken, to the state Capitol, some with arms outstretched and hands clasped, and others linked arm in arm. The demonstration stretched from sidewalks near campus to a plaza outside the Capitol where many held signs with messages such as, “I'm A Voice for Gun Safety.”
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The bill's sponsor, Sen. Joey Hensley from Hohenwald, said his legislation doesn't prevent any other proposal from passing. The bill passed the House ahead of the March 27 shooting at The Covenant School.
“This is just to try to help businesses in this state that have chosen to come here, to give them a little civil liability,” Hensley said.
The Tennessee bill spells out a half-dozen situations in which gun and ammo companies could be held civilly liable in Tennessee state courts, exempting others.
Three Republicans voted against the legislation, including Sen. Art Swann of Maryville, who said “gun-makers have encouraged the environment we’ve got right now.”
“They’re accountable for it, and we need to hold them to it,” Swann said.
The firearm industry remains largely shielded from liability under federal law. Seventeen states do not have special immunity for the gun industry, and Tennessee is already not among them, according to Everytown for Gun Safety, a gun control advocacy group.
Last year, Remington, the company that made the rifle used in the the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre in Connecticut, settled with the families of those killed in the shooting for $73 million. The families had accused the company of targeting younger, at-risk males in advertising and product placement in violent video games.
And in February, families of those killed and injured in a 2018 Texas high school shooting settled a lawsuit they filed against a Tennessee-based online retailer, Lucky Gunner, that was accused of illegally selling ammunition to the student who authorities say fatally shot 10 people. The owner of the company, Jordan Mollenhour, sits on the Tennessee State Board of Education. The company was accused of failing to verify Dimitrios Pagourtzis’ age — he was 17, at the time — when he bought more than 100 rounds of ammunition on two occasions before the May 2018 shooting at Santa Fe High School.
“There are people that we should be going out of way to protect this week,” Sen. Jeff Yarbro of Nashville said. “And we’ve been receiving emails and calls, people are holding up signs, telling us to go out of our way to help those people. Not one of those signs says to protect the gun manufacturers.”