Safe Tennessee Remarks from Vigil and Call to Action

in photo, from left to right: Rep. Dwayne Thomson, Rep. Mike Stewart, Sen. Sara Kyle, Rep. John Ray Clemmons, Congressman Jim Cooper, Rep. Gloria Johnson, Safe Tennessee Policy Director Beth Joslin Roth

Thank you all for being here today.  It’s unfortunate that we once again find ourselves coming together following a tragic mass shooting – but this time, we are here not just because of one major mass shooting – we’re here because there have been three in a single week.

These mass shootings – the ones that injure and kill large numbers of people – make us all feel less safe in our communities.  They make us feel less safe when we go to our places of worship, to movie theaters, festivals, malls and when we send our kids to school. But they’re just a fraction of the total number of mass shootings we have.

As of today, there have been 253 US mass shootings this year

Today is the 217th day of the year by the way. 

There have been six mass shooting already in Tennessee this year. The most recent one was this weekend in Memphis. Four people were shot. One of them died.

But even mass shootings are just one part of our country’s gun violence problem.  Here are just a few headlines from the last few days here in middle Tennessee:

Man dies after being shot multiple times in Murfreesboro 

Multiple homes hit in shooting in South Nashville neighborhood

Woman’s home in Gallatin sprayed with bullets during shooting

Gun violence is an epidemic in our country and in our state.  Today we are here to remember the innocent victims in Gilroy, El Paso, and Dayton. We will continue to keep the victims, their families, and their community in our thoughts. And we will continue to pray for their healing and for our country, so torn apart by hate right now.

But, we are also here today to have a serious discussion about policy and action – evidenced-based policies and real action we can all take today.

Let’s start by addressing some of the oft-repeated NRA myths and pivots;

Myth One: Criminals don’t follow laws, so gun laws don’t work.

Really? If that’s the case, why have any laws at all.  If people are going to speed, why have speed limits? If people are going to drink and drive, why have DUI laws? Why? Because speed limits and DUI laws have reduced the number of people injured and killed in wrecks. Have you ever noticed that the only time the “criminals don’t follow laws” argument is used is as an excuse for not passing better gun laws?  And, let’s be clear – states with stronger gun laws have lower rates of gun violence. That is a fact.

Myth Two: The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.

Really? Open carry is allowed in Texas. There were armed individuals at the Walmart and the Cielo Vista mall, including an army soldier with a gun permit who said that at the first sound of gunfire, he drew his weapon, but when he saw terrified kids, he put his gun away and got the kids to safety.

In Dayton, Ohio, armed with an 100-round drum magazine and body armor, a 24-year-old man opened fire in a popular neighborhood filled with bars and restaurants. Ohio is also an open carry state. And, just like in Tennessee, you can legally carry loaded guns in bars.  Police responded to the shooting in less than 60 seconds – in less than one minute, police were on the scene and had taken down the shooter. But in that short time frame, he’d already gunned down nearly three dozen people. Police said he was able to fire 41 shots in less than 30 seconds.

Myth Three: It’s not a gun issue, it’s a mental health issue.

Really? Other countries have individuals with mental health issues, but they don’t have more than one mass shooting per day in their country.  Other countries have individuals who play video games, who are from broken homes, who watch violent movies… But other countries don’t have 40,000 people a year being killed with guns.  It’s also worth noting that psychiatrists, psychologists, mental health professionals, and public health researchers make clear that mentally ill people are far more likely to be a victim of violence than a perpetrator of it.  Being a hateful, angry collector of grievances is not a diagnosed mental disorder.  And, regarding the the El Paso and Dayton mass shootings – and Charleston, Gilroy, Parkland, Thousand Oaks, Colorado Springs, Tallahassee, Pittsburgh, Vegas and so many more – being an angry white male is not a mental disorder.

Think about it: if there were three ISIS-inspired attacks killing over 30 people and injuring over 50 in a single week, would we be talking about mental health? Video games?

We don’t call international terrorists mentally ill. We shouldn’t call domestic terrorists, including those who are white supremacists, mentally ill, either.

Myth Four: More guns in the hands of more people make us safer.

Really? In America, there are more guns than people, yet, gun violence in our country is exponentially higher than in other wealthy countries. In fact, rates of gun violence in the US are higher than in many law income countries. In many states, like Tennessee, Texas, and Ohio, the gun laws are extremely lax. Guns can be bought from private sellers without background checks. You can carry guns many places, including bars, restaurants, parks, playgrounds, stores, even on public transportation. Yet, rates of gun violence in our state are higher than most other states in the country, and significantly higher than those of states with stronger gun laws.

Myth Five: We are hopelessly divided on guns.

Really? This is perhaps the biggest myth of them all – propaganda that creates paralysis, and worse, apathy.  Let’s walk through some polling data:

Over 90% of Americans support expanding background checks, including 83% of gun owners and 72% of NRA members.

78% of Americans support a mandatory waiting period for gun purchases.

77% of Americans, including more than two thirds of gun owners, support requiring a person to obtain a license before purchasing a firearm.

68% support banning military-style weapons

70% support banning high capacity magazines.

And, here in Tennessee, polling done last year by MTSU showed that 58% of Tennesseans support stronger laws when it comes to buying guns.

Even back in 2015, MTSU’s poll showed that 83% of Tennesseans support making private gun sales subject to background checks including 78% of self-identified gun rights supporters.

Most gun owners in the country and in our state are law abiding members of our communities. They take the responsibility of gun ownership seriously.

And they agree with us that we need to strengthen our gun laws. 

We are not only NOT divided on the issue of gun law reform, there are actually few public policy issues that we as a country agree on more – even here in Tennessee.

Myth Six: No gun law can stop gun violence.

This statement is actually true. There is no one single law, policy or program that will mean an end to all gun violence in our country – or our state.  The issue is complicated.

Some numbers:

Here in Tennessee, we had more firearm deaths in 2017 than in any previous year – more firearm suicides and more firearm homicides than in any previous year.

We are ranked 11th in the country for firearm mortality and 7th for firearm homicides.

Tennessee is also fifth in the nation for women murdered by men, most often with a gun and almost always by a man they know.

Tennessee led the entire nation in the number of kids who injured or killed themselves or someone else with negligently stored gun in 2017.

On average 50 Tennesseans a month use a gun to take their own life.

There is no single law, policy or program that will mean an end to all gun violence – but there are policies than can make a difference. Any one of them can reduce these numbers and a combination of them can substantially reduce them.

We should pass universal background checks

Universal background checks are supported by majorities of Americans and Tennesseans.  Yes, bad guys will still find ways to get their hands on guns, but why do we make it so easy for them to do so? Why is there such resistance to trying to make it difficult?  In January, the US House of Representatives passed H.R. 8, legislation to expand background checks to all guns sales. Today, we call on Senators Alexander and Blackburn to tell Mitch McConnell to put the bill up for a vote. 

And, we can push for this legislation at the state level, too. Safe Tennessee has filed legislation to expand background checks every year since 2016. Our bill will be discussed in 2020. Lawmakers should DO SOMETHING and pass it.

We should pass extreme risk protection order legislation

Extreme Risk Protection Orders, also known as red flag laws, allow an immediate family member or member of law enforcement who believe a person to be imminent threat to themselves or others to petition a judge to temporarily remove firearms from their possession.  Several states have enacted these laws in the last few years and they’re supported by the American Bar Association , the American Medical Association, the Major Cities Police Chiefs, and a growing number of Republican lawmakers, like Senator Marco RubioSenator Lindsey Graham. Trump has signaled that he is open to them, too.

Today, we call on Senators Alexander and Blackburn to join with Senator Graham and Donald Trump and support efforts to implement red flag laws. 

Here at home, Safe Tennessee has filed red flag legislation every year since 2016.  Our bill will be discussed in the 2020 session. Lawmakers should DO SOMETHING and pass it.

We should pass “MaKayla’s Law 

MaKayla’s Law is named after an 8-year-old little girl who was fatally shot by an 11-year-old boy when she refused to let him play with her puppy.  The boy used his father’s loaded, unsecured shotgun to shoot MaKayla from a window of his family’s trailer.  The boy was convicted of murder.  His father was not charged with any crime.  MaKayla’s Law would hold adult gun owners responsible if their choice not to secure their firearm results in a child accessing the gun and injuring or killing themselves or another person with it.

We first filed this legislation in 2016.  Every year, the NRA forbids legislators from supporting it and it never gets out of committee.  Our latest version of the bill will be discussed in the 2020 session. Lawmakers should DO SOMETHING and pass it.

We should Strengthen firearm dispossession 

We should make it harder for convicted domestic abusers to regain access to they firearms.  Tennessee is fifth in the nation for women murdered by men. In 2019, not only did Tennessee lawmakers refuse to consider legislation – endorsed by law enforcement – to strengthen firearm dispossession, the House passed legislation to overturn a previous law that protected domestic abuse victims. During a discussion in the State Senate’s Judiciary Committee, a senator said that he thought that victims should just understand that there are a lot of guns out there and maybe learn self-defense.

We will continue to fight to protect abuse victims and their families. Lawmakers should DO SOMETHING and support our efforts. 

We should require guns to be safely stored, at home and in vehicles 

Safe storage of guns, secured in a safe or with a trigger lock, not only prevents unintentional shootings involving kids, it prevents thefts. Gun thefts from vehicles are a serious and growing problem in Tennessee, and a key driver of gun violence, especially youth violence. Gun thefts from vehicles have gone up 85% statewide over the last two years. In Memphis alone, they’ve gone 256% since the legislature passed the “guns in trunks” law. Many of the guns are stolen from unlocked cars. The everyday gun violence that you see on your local news every night is often committed with these guns.

A bill to require guns be safely stored in cars never got out of committee in 2019. It should be re-introduced in 2020. Lawmakers should DO SOMETHING and pass it.

We should ban “assault rifles”  and high capacity magazines

Most gun violence in this country is committed with handguns.  However, most all major mass shootings are perpetrated with semi-automatic military-style assault rifles equipped with high capacity magazines.  The only key difference between these rifles and the fully-automatic type carried by soldiers is the way the trigger is pulled.  These weapons are designed for one thing – killing as many people as possible as quickly as possible. These weapons of war – and magazines that hold 15, 30, 50, 100 rounds – have no business on our streets and in our communities.

Today we call on our members of Congress to DO SOMETHING and reinstate the assault weapons ban.

At the city level, we must urge our mayor and city council leaders to challenge Tennessee’s preemption laws. Our state’s firearm preemption laws mean that a city cannot pass any ordnance at all related to firearms – nothing related to sales, storage, theft prevention, or where guns can be carried.  In a state like Tennessee, with densely packed urban areas and sparsely populated rural areas, a one-size fits all approach to gun laws makes no sense.

What cities like Nashville can do right now is prioritize funding to local community groups working to address and more importantly PREVENT gun violence. Currently, a nonprofit seeking a grant of more than $5000 from the city must submit a certified audit in order to even apply for the grant.  Audits can cost upwards of $10,000.  Groups like Gideon’s Army, Cure Violence, and Nashville Peacemakers cannot afford to even apply for these grants.  These organizations are doing the real boots on the ground work to address the everyday gun violence that plagues our city’s streets and communities. We should be doing everything possible to support their efforts.

Please contact your member of council and ask them to make it easier for community groups to get the funding they need

Lastly, I urge you to get involved! 

Call Alexander and Blackburn – tell them you want the senate to pass background checks and to support Lindsey Graham’s efforts to implement red flag laws. Tell them to DO SOMETHING.

Alexander: 202-224-4944 (DC)   615-736-5129 (Nashville)
Blackburn: 202-224-3344 (DC)   629-800-6600 (Nashville)

Call on state legislators to listen to the majority of Tennesseans – VOTERS – in this state and strengthen gun laws. Tell them to DO SOMETHING.

Go to to find out who your legislator is and how to contact them

Call on city leaders – current leaders and those headed to runoff elections – to challenge preemption laws and to prioritize support and funding for the grassroots community groups working to prevent gun violence, especially youth violence.

And finally – do not become apathetic.  Do not become desensitized to what is happening in America. IT IS NOT NORMAL.  IT ONLY HAPPENS IN OUR COUNTRY. 

We can do better. We must do better. 

And if elected leaders refuse to take action, we must vote them out in 2020.

In closing, let’s remember the words of Dr. Martin Luther King:

“Let us realize the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

Let’s all keep working together to bend it.