Dr. Martin Luther King’s "Letter from Birmingham Jail" was written on April 16, 1963, while he was serving time for participating in nonviolent protests against segregation in the city. Ironically, as we approach the 60th anniversary of that remarkable letter, our eyes are on the Tennessee legislature. Monday evening, the first of two Black legislators expelled for supporting student protests against gun violence was restored to office, but the controversy continues. The timeline is fitting. What happened in Tennessee feels more like 1963 than 2023.
It started when a shooter killed six people at the Covenant School in Nashville. It was just over two weeks ago. Three of the victims were nine-year-old children. It comes as no surprise that there was widespread outrage and student-led protests across the state. The shooter used a legally purchased AR-15 military-style rifle, equipped with a 30-round magazine, and two other firearms to kill his victims.
Tennessee enacted a law in July of 2021 that allows permitless carry of handguns, both concealed and unconcealed, for anyone over the age of 21. Governor Bill Lee tweeted this after he signed the law: "I signed constitutional carry today because it shouldn't be hard for law-abiding Tennesseans to exercise their #2A rights." Apparently, that law wasn’t enough. Another bill is now working its way through both houses of the legislature that would expand the 2021 law by substituting the word “firearms” for “handguns,” bringing assault weapons within Tennessee’s permissive gun laws. It also lowers the legal age from 21 to 18. Gun manufacturer Smith & Wesson will move its front office to “gun friendly” Tennessee from Massachusetts later this year.