Republicans in the Tennessee state legislature have passed a bill that would give gun manufacturers, sellers and dealers additional protections from lawsuits, ignoring the demands of protesters who have spent weeks calling for gun reform.
The state Senate passed the bill in a 19-9 vote on Tuesday. The House had already passed the bill weeks ago, before a shooter killed six people, including three 9-year-olds, at a private school in Nashville.
The bill now heads to the desk of Gov. Bill Lee (R), who will likely sign it into law despite calling for additional gun restrictions in the state.
Since the Nashville shooting, thousands of protestors have gathered at the state Capitol building calling for gun reform. When three Democratic lawmakers — state Reps. Justin J. Pearson, Justin Jones and Gloria Johnson — used a bullhorn on the House floor to lead protesters in the gallery in chants supportive of gun reform, Republicans cast votes to expel all three, ultimately removing Jones and Pearson (who are Black) but allowing Johnson (who is white) to remain in her position.
Jones and Pearson have since been reinstated to their House seats by their local governments.
The bill that passed on Tuesday shields gun and ammunition sellers, manufacturers and dealers from criminal liability when shootings result in injury or death. Such companies are already granted an incredible amount of protections, both at the federal and state levels. Efforts to change these standards have had little success — a lawsuit against a gun manufacturer by family members of victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary school shooting, for instance, resulted in an out-of-court settlement of $73 million but no changes in judicial standards when it comes to civil liabilities of gun sellers or manufacturers.
Critics of the bill condemned lawmakers for acting against the wishes of a majority of their constituents, with state Sen. London Lamar (D) noting the “disrespectful timing” of the bill’s passage.
“We need to do more to protect citizens from gun violence than the people making the guns that people can use to kill more people,” Lamar said.
State Sen. Jeff Yarbro (D) agreed, stating:
There are people that we should be going out of way to protect this week. And we’ve been receiving emails and calls, people are holding up signs, telling us to go out of our way to help those people. Not one of those signs says to protect the gun manufacturers.
During a citywide demonstration for gun reform on Tuesday, thousands of Tennesseans formed a human chain from the children’s hospital (where victims of the recent mass shooting were taken) to the state Capitol building. Voices for a Safer Tennessee, which helped organize the action, demanded that lawmakers take action to regulate gun ownership.
“This is not a political issue. It’s a public safety issue,” the organization said. “By coming together as one, unified voice, we can channel our sorrow into action and advocacy for stronger gun safety measures.”
Many progressives have called for gun laws that hold gun manufacturers and sellers liable, rather than focusing on ownership restrictions, which law enforcement often uses to criminalize marginalized communities. Ramsin Canon, a Chicago-based civil rights attorney, explained the importance of targeting gun manufacturers in a Truthout op-ed in 2021.
Gun reform that creates more criminal penalties regarding gun ownership “suffers from multiple risks and weaknesses,” Canon stated, noting that law enforcement is still “more likely to disproportionately target working-class people of color, who face disproportionate arrest and sentencing.”
Instead, lawmakers should pass gun bills that end protections for gun manufacturers and sellers. Doing so would “compel the industry to bear actual, constant and proportional costs of its reckless overproduction and marketing of arms,” Canon said.
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