On Tuesday, the Senate voted 28 to 5 to pass SB2376 by Sen. Mike Bill. The bill requires all Tennessee public colleges and universities to allow permit-holding faculty and staff to carry guns on campus. Pointing out that there is a “diversity of opinion” on the issue of allowing guns on campus, Sen. Lee Harris offered an amendment would have given public colleges and universities the choice to allow or not allow guns on their campuses. The amendment mirrored “The Bell Amendment”, an amendment Sen. Bell made to SB1559 his bill pertaining to guns and private schools and colleges. The “Bell Amendment”, which passed easily with NRA support, allows all individual private schools the option of permitting guns on their campuses if they choose.

Sen. Bell indicated that he thought private schools should be given the choice but that the legislature, not school administrators or police chiefs, should control all policy making on public college campuses.

Sen. Harris’s amendment failed.

“This amendment would have simply given our public colleges the same choice as our private colleges,” said Beth Joslin Roth, policy director of The Safe Tennessee Project. “When it applied to private schools, no one objected to allowing them to choose what made sense for their campus. The Tennessee Board of Regents and the University of Tennessee system all asked for this amendment. Legislators refused to give our public schools a choice. This is a clear double standard. Why aren’t our public schools given the same choice on this critical issue?”

In the House Education, Planning and Administration committee two weeks ago, a similar amendment was offered by Rep. Craig Fitzhugh. Asked why the NRA opposed giving public colleges the same choice as public colleges, lobbyist Erin Luper replied, “To be honest, I don’t think many of the public institutions would opt-in to do this.” House sponsor Rep. Andy Holt acknowledged that, given the choice, the Tennessee Board of Regents and UT schools, would follow the recommendation of law enforcement and choose not to allow guns on campus. He said he opposed the amendment because “they’ve already basically said this is something they don’t want.” The amendment failed on a 6-6 vote. The bill was then passed without the amendment.

The move to allow guns on college campuses has faced overwhelming opposition from the Tennessee Board of Regents, university presidents and administration, university faculty-senates, and student government associations. Campus police chiefs and the Tennessee Association of Police Chiefs have been outspoken in their opposition to the bill and have testified that passage of this legislation will make college campuses less safe, critically delay the response of first responders, and put officers’ lives at risk. University of Memphis Police Chief and Vice President of Administration David Harber and Northeast State Community College John Edens both offered compelling testimony against the bill in the House Civil Justice Subcommittee on March 23rd but were only given the chance to speak after the vote to advance the bill had been taken.

Sen.Harris distributed the results of a recent University of Tennessee survey on guns on campus. The results showed that nearly 90% of faculty opposed the proposed legislation. The survey included comments from the faculty members. Sen. Bell, referring to the faculty comments, suggested that many of the faculty members “needed medication” and then read several of the comments that expressed concerns as senators laughed. Several faculty members’ comments indicated that they might consider resigning if the bill passed. Senators clapped, laughed and said “amen.”

“Why do legislators think they know more about this issue than the Tennessee Association of Police Chiefs?” asked Roth. “At the very least, university and college administration in conjunction with their campus police chiefs should be the ones deciding whether or not they allow guns on their individual school’s campus. The fact that our legislators outright reject the recommendation of law enforcement and ridicule the concerns of administrators, faculty, and students clearly demonstrates that our legislature’s loyalty lies with the NRA, and not with the Tennesseans who will be affected by this bill.”

The house version of the bill, HB1736, was passed in both the House Finance, Ways, and Means Subcommittee and full committee. It will next be heard on the house floor where it is expected to pass. Governor Haslam, who has expressed concerns about the bill, will then have to decide whether or not to sign the bill into law.