NASHVILLE — Gov. Bill Haslam said Monday he doesn't think Tennessee needs tougher gun laws after last week's Connecticut school massacre but does believe the tragedy could impact debate about a guns-in-parking lots bill in the Legislature.
The Newton, Conn., shooting deaths of 20 children and six adults at the school by a lone gunman have spurred a national debate over gun regulation.
However, Haslam, a Republican, said he expects the debate to largely stay at the national level and added he doesn't "see a big need to change things" like pushing a ban on assault-style weapons in Tennessee.
A controversial proposal that gives workers the ability to keep weapons in their locked vehicles parked at work may be another matter, the governor said.
Businesses argue the National Rifle Association-backed law violates their property rights. Gun advocates say the current situation guts handgun-carry permit holders' ability to travel safely to and from work.
While noting that 54 percent of respondents to a recent Vanderbilt University poll supported the legislation, which engulfed the Legislature in controversy the past two years, Haslam said he expects the Connecticut shooting "will be part of how we talk about that bill in Tennessee."
"I have expressed a particular concern with education institutions, and still feel that way," he said.
The governor said that although it remains unclear whether mental illness played a role in 20-year-old Adam Lanza's actions, "I do think that addressing mental health issues is much more the preventative way to address this and something we can control."
The Haslam administration also has called for a forum on school safety and security next month in response to the shooting.
House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga, said that while what happened in Connecticut was a "horrible tragedy. ... I don't see an assault weapons ban getting much traction in Tennessee. It may cause people to look a little harder at the guns in parking lots issue."
But McCormick, who has sided with business concerns on the guns-in-parking lots bill, added "if a crazy person shows up at a workplace ... I am not sure if a ban in parking lots does any good."
"It sounds really like a mental health issue and maybe we need to focus on some more help for people with mental health issues," he said.
Sen. Frank Niceley, R-Strawberry Plains, said he plans to file legislation that would require there be a school resource officer from law enforcement or a similarly trained school staffer at every K-12 institution in Tennessee.
Hamilton County Sheriff Jim Hammond currently provides 18 resource officers to schools. The Chattanooga Police Department stations an officer at Brainerd High and Howard. East Ridge provides a shared officer at the middle and high school, and Signal Mountain provides an officer at the mountain's middle/high school. The Hamilton County Department of Education funds two of the county SRO positions with grant money.
The officers have multiple duties, including watching for problems and speaking to students on areas ranging from gangs to drug use.
Hammond said he doesn't have near enough money to cover all schools. The costs for officers can range from $60,000 to $80,000 a year, he noted.
"Would it have helped in this kind of case? Who knows?" Hammond said. "The biggest issue is you can't hire enough people."
A less expensive route would be providing resources to hire a recently retired law enforcement officer "who's still got a lot of gut and go," Hammond added.
But Hammond said he believes "we've got to have better ways to treat" people with mental issues, and he has concerns about their ability to obtain firearms.
"I believe in a person's right to own and bear a firearm if they properly have background checks," the sheriff said.
He said he thinks fundamental changes in American society underlie much of what the country is seeing. It includes a loss of "moral and spiritual concepts" in people's lives, major changes in the economy and jobs and an increasingly violent culture with crime and violence glorified on television. Some video games are even worse, he added.
"These kids learn to do mass murder by video," the sheriff said.
Haslam said he like others felt ill at the news of the massacre.
"Your first response is being sick at your stomach," the governor said. "I was with people all weekend who kept coming back to that. I think it's something the American people are having a hard time getting past, and I hope we don't get past it fast."
Andy Sher is a Nashville-based staff writer covering Tennessee state government and politics for the Times Free Press. A Washington correspondent from 1999-2005 for the Times Free Press, Andy previously headed up state Capitol coverage for The Chattanooga Times, worked as a state Capitol reporter for The Nashville Banner and was a contributor to The Tennessee Journal, among other publications. Andy worked for 17 years at The Chattanooga Times covering police, health care, county government, ...