“10 More Days”
The Uvalde shooter posted this online 10 days before his 18th birthday when he could legally purchase a semi-automatic rifle. He purchased two plus 1657 rounds of ammunition. As a result, 19 innocent schoolchildren and 2 teachers died, 17 injured. The powerful destructive nature of the weapons he used left many of these victims unrecognizable to their families. An 18-year-old in Tennessee can legally purchase the same gun and ammunition.
In the weeks following the Uvalde mass shooting, 19 people died and 91 were injured in 20 more mass shootings across the country. There have been over 299 mass shootings so far this year alone (Gun Violence Archive). A “mass shooting” means 4 or more people are shot or killed, not including the shooters (Gun Violence Archive). Within two weeks of the tragedy in Uvalde, 2 mass shootings occurred in Chattanooga, 3 dead and over 20 injured. This is only part of the story.
Mass shootings grab and momentarily hold our attention until the next shooting but only represent a small percentage of the total number of deaths from murder, suicides and accidental shootings. On average, over 40,000 people die and 85,000 are injured from gun violence every year in the United States (EveryStat). No other comparable country in the world even comes close. With over 400 million guns, the United States has 25 times the gun homicide rate of similar developed countries. These countries share common problems with us, such as mental illness, pandemic related issues, crises, and hyper-partisan politics. We are the outlier. The equation is simple - more guns equals more gun violence.
Gun Violence in Tennessee
Tennessee fares far worse than many other states, ranking 14th in overall gun violence. Between 2011-2020 gun deaths skyrocketed 48% in Tennessee, homicides increased 103% and suicides 20%. Tennessee now averages 1273 gun deaths and 2220 gun injuries a year, and is the leading cause of death among children and teenagers. Outside of the horrific emotional toll, gun violence costs Tennessee $9 billion dollars every year (EveryStat).
In spite of this shocking spike in gun violence and it’s horrendous toll on Tennesseans, Governor Lee, our Republican US Senators and Congressional Representatives and the Republican state legislature refuse to pass commonsense laws which reduce gun violence and make Tennessee a safer place for our children and families. They blame mass shootings on the mentally ill, yet even with Tennessee’s decentralized mental health system and mobile crisis units, Tennessee still ranks 45th in the nation in access to mental health care (Mental Health America). Our state has lost $22.5 billion dollars because of their failure to expand Medicaid, which would include coverage for mental health treatment. 400,000 plus Tennesseans remain uninsured.
Suicides account for more gun deaths in Tennessee than gun homicides and accidental shootings. Over 700 Tennesseans a year die by gun suicide (EveryStat). Rural areas of the state have higher suicide rates (1.5 times) than metropolitan areas, and in 63% of those suicides a gun was used (Tennessee Department of Health). Hospital emergency rooms serve those in a mental health crisis, and are particularly important in rural areas where there may not be readily accessible counseling or supportive services, and where cell and internet service may not be available for contact with crisis hotlines or tele-health appointments with professionals. Tennessee’s rural areas have been particularly hard hit by Governor Lee’s failure to expand Medicaid, with 16 rural hospital closures in recent years, and others facing financial challenges that could lead to additional closures (Center for Healthcare Quality and Payment Reform).
Schools are uniquely positioned to identify warning signs and intervene with struggling students and families to offer mental health support and educate students about bullying, understanding feelings and emotions and resolving conflict peacefully. Governor Lee’s $250 million dollar Student Mental Health Trust Fund is estimated to initially generate only $6 million dollars to fund statewide programs. Coupled with $20 million dollars set aside from the trust fund for “short term” needs, plus existing understaffed programs, Governor Lee’s plan falls far short of what’s needed, in light of rising rates of depression, anxiety, youth suicides, and the additional impact of the pandemic on student mental health. Tennessee ranks 40th nationally in the prevalence of mental illness and access to mental health care for youth (Mental Health America).
Spotting Red Flags
Extreme Risk Protection Order Laws, or Red Flag Laws, temporarily remove guns from someone at extreme risk of hurting themselves or others. It would give concerned Tennessee families and law enforcement a tool to petition the court to keep family members, victims of domestic violence, a potential suicide and others, safe from someone who may be in crisis and has access to guns. These laws save lives, yet a proposed Red Flag Law was introduced by Democratic state legislators in 2020, but failed to pass in the supermajority Republican legislature and essentially died in committee.
Governor Lee and the Republicans have made every effort to weaken our already weak gun laws. Tennessee’s Permitless Carry Law allows eligible18-year-olds and 21-year-olds to purchase a hand gun, without instruction on how to safely operate and store a gun. Under Tennessee law, guns can be openly carried or concealed, and stored in personal automobiles. As Permitless Carry only applies to handguns, 18-year-olds can already legally purchase shotguns and rifles, like the semi-automatic rifle used at Uvalde, no instruction or experience required. Studies show the parts of the brain which control judgement and decision-making aren’t fully developed until the age of 25 (Insider). Other studies show 18 to 20-year-olds are more likely to commit homicides and die by suicide with easy access to guns (Injury Prevention). Tennessee Republicans passed a bill in the House last session lowering the age from 21 to 18 to purchase a handgun. Do we really want untrained, often impulsive18- year-olds purchasing guns?
With rising gun ownership more children are living in homes with guns. In states, like Tennessee, without a Safe Storage Gun Law and a requirement for gun safety and storage training, children are at a higher risk for involvement in gun violence, and for those emotionally vulnerable to act on suicidal intent. Unsecured guns and unsafe storage practices have created a growing problem of unintentional shootings by young, curious, unsuspecting children. In 2021, 377 shootings by children lead to 154 deaths and 242 injuries (Aftermath). Children find unsecured guns and unintentionally shoot or injure other children. The pandemic fueled historic guns sales, and with children at home more, these shootings jumped by 30% (Aftermath). Deaths by gun suicide among young people have risen by 53% over the last decade (Everytown). Research indicates that the presence of guns in the home “dramatically increases the risk of suicide for children and adolescents” (Society for Research in Child Development). In some mass school shootings, like Sandy Hook, shooters brought their guns from home or the home of relatives.
Tennessee law allows gun owners to store handguns in their personal automobiles. Although the law states the guns should be out of sight and securely stored, in recent years, Tennessee ranked first in gun thefts from automobiles (Everytown). So far this year over 800 guns have been stolen in Nashville alone, 70% stolen from cars. Tennessee does not require gun owners to report lost or stolen guns to law enforcement, so this data doesn’t fully capture the extent of the problem.
Equipping Our State With Sensible Legislation
Tennessee has no mandate for Universal Background Checks; however, federal law requires licensed firearms dealers who sell guns at places like gun shows to initiate a background check to stop the sale of guns to those legally prohibited from purchasing them. While the federal background check system (NICS) has prevented over 4,000,000 sales to ineligible purchasers, the problem is the availability and private purchase of guns (Everytown). Private sellers drum up business at gun shows, legally selling weapons to buyers without a background check. Online gun exchanges are marketplaces where sellers list guns for sale, connect with interested buyers, and arrange for private purchases. A 2015 survey of gun owners, reported 22% had purchased a gun without a background check in the previous two years (Everytown). Private gun sales and unsafely stored guns are opportunities for drug dealers, convicted felons, domestic violence abusers, stalkers, and others to access guns. It also fuels gun trafficking. Tennessee is considered a “source state” for gun trafficking by the FBI. Criminals transport guns purchased easily over state lines and across the country where they’re used in other criminal activity.
Tennessee has few laws which keep guns out of the wrong hands and keep children and families safe. More and more Tennesseans are dying and injured every year from gun violence. Suicides, particularly among our young people are rising, as well as mass shootings, homicides and accidental shootings. While communities of color have been hit the hardest, it affects us all and it’s happening everywhere. Schools struggle for solutions to help troubled youth and families, and find answers for keeping children and teachers safe, without turning our schools into armed encampments. Rural areas face special challenges with hospital closures and fewer resources. What about law enforcement? How do they know who the good guys or bad guys are when just about anyone can purchase or obtain a gun? Tennessee’s law enforcement community opposed Permitless Carry warning it would add to gun violence and increased criminal activity. The Republican state legislature passed it anyway.
There Are Solutions
Limiting access to guns as a strategy for preventing gun violence saves lives. The majority of Americans and Tennesseans, including gun owners, agree. There is no one failsafe answer to gun violence, but there are commonsense solutions that can work together to prevent it. Other states have enacted Red Flag Laws, Safe Storage Laws, Universal Background Checks. They have banned or restricted assault rifles and high capacity magazines, raised the age for gun purchases, and organized gun buy back programs. The states with stronger gun laws have far less gun violence. Tennessee has none of these. It ranks 32nd nationally on the strength of its gun laws (Everytown).
Governor Lee, our Republican US Senators and Congressional Representatives and the Republican state legislature have repeatedly failed Tennesseans, and their refusal to take gun violence seriously is putting all Tennesseans at greater risk. Loosening our gun laws and allowing more people to more easily access guns is misguided. It is not the solution to the widespread gun violence in Tennessee, as we’ve recently seen in Chattanooga. We need leaders who recognize the problem and are willing to work with all communities to find solutions.
We all have the power to stop gun violence. Vote for people who have the courage to stand up for Tennessee’s children and families, and pass comprehensive legislation that makes us all safe in our homes, our schools and in our communities. This is not a Second Amendment issue, but clearly a choice to stop the killing.
Linda Sullivan, retired Social Worker and long time community activist