Gun Violence Drives New Energy Among Tennessee Voters

Families of two young persons killed in mass shootings joined House Democratic Chair John Ray Clemmons (3rd from left) at the state Capitol, after parents and school children marched there demanding tougher gun control, on April 4, 2023. Manuel and Patricia Oliver (left) lost their son, Joaquin, in the Florida Parkland shooting. Shaundelle Brooks, with her family, (right) lost her son Akilah DaSilva in the Antioch Waffle House shooting.

By Natalie R. Bell 

NASHVILLE, TN — The chairman of the Tennessee House Democratic Caucus, Rep. John Ray Clemmons, of Nashville, says in the days after the tragic Covenant School shooting, he started gaining attention from his colleagues across the aisle. He established bipartisan talks on gun control with a group that includes Rep. Bob Freeman, whose district 56 includes the private Christian school.  

“Most of my GOP colleagues have only been listening to five-percent of the people in their districts,” said Clemmons, adding that it’s only those smaller constituencies, the “Maga Republicans,” who insist on gun rights for law-abiding citizens. 

The 2023 legislative session — rated one of the lowest in terms of voter approval in a  Vanderbilt University poll — ended on April 20, without any action on gun control. Gov. Bill Lee has announced a special session to begin August 21st, however he has yet to set the specific purpose for the session.  

The Vanderbilt University poll, released May 2nd, registered strong, bipartisan support for gun control in Tennessee. The poll surveyed 1,003 voters across the state (from April 19-23) and found that 72-percent would support a “red flag” law. Red flag laws temporarily restrict a person’s access to guns if they become a threat to themselves or others. 

The parents of 28-year-old Audrey Hale, the assailant in the Covenant School shooting, told officers they felt that their daughter should not own guns, according to a CNN report.  

When the legislature adjourned on April 20, Rep. Clemmons, the House Democratic leader, got in his car and drove east, first to Knoxville, then Chattanooga, to hear directly from voters in that part of the state. He talked to people in union halls, who’re known to vote both Democrat and Republican, and others in more public spaces.  

“There’s a renewed sense of energy,” said Clemmons, not just among the Democratic base, but among people in coffee shops and diners.  

“People are fed up. They are sick and tired, (and) ready for action.”  

“Let’s be honest, gun violence didn’t just start with the Covenant School shooting, which that was an unfortunate tragedy. But we have gun violence plaguing our state, in every community…on a consistent basis, not necessarily mass shootings but, gun violence.” 

Clemmons started his career as a clerk for Bob Clement, the former eight-term congressman and son of Dickson County. A native of Wilson County, Clemmons says he grew up learning to respect the protection of gun rights, but like a growing number of Tennesseans, he understands the need for “common sense” and restrictions on gun access. 

Elected to chair the Democratic Caucus at the outset of the last session, Clemmons has made it a top priority to end the Republican supermajority in the House. In the current climate over gun violence, he says he’s sees the possibility for major change.    “There are too many guns on the streets for various reasons. Too many people who shouldn’t have firearms have them.”