Apr 11, 2023, 3:40pm EDT
politicsNorth America

Tennessee governor who lost friends in Nashville shooting strengthens background checks

Gov. Bill Lee
USA TODAY NETWORK via Reuters Connect

Sign up for Semafor Principals: What the White House is reading. Read it now.

Title icon

The News

Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee, a Republican, signed an executive order on Tuesday aimed at streamlining and optimizing background checks for gun purchases in the state.

The move comes two weeks after a 28-year-old shooter legally purchased seven firearms and killed three adults and three children at a private school in Nashville, with two of the governor’s friends among those killed in the massacre. It was the state’s deadliest school shooting.

Lee further called on state lawmakers to draft an “order of protection” law aimed at keeping guns away from dangerous individuals.

“The truth is that we’re facing evil itself, and we can’t stop evil, but we can do something,” Lee said at a press conference on Tuesday. “When there is a clear need for action, I think that we have an obligation, and I certainly do, to remind people that we should set aside politics and pride and accomplish something that the people of Tennessee want to see get accomplished.”

Title icon

Know More

The executive order requires law enforcement and other agencies to report new criminal activity and court mental health information to the Tennessee Instant Check System (TICS) — the state’s background check system — within 72 hours. It also orders the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation to review the current firearm background check system and submit any recommendations and suggestions within the next 60 days.


Tennessee currently does not have a “red flag” provision, which allows people to petition courts to prevent dangerous people from accessing a weapon. However, Lee said on Tuesday that an enhanced order of protection law could enact similar measures, though the details still need to be developed, he added.

“I believe this will protect victims, that it will hold dangerous people accountable and away from firearms and that it’ll preserve constitutional rights at the same time,” he said.

State House Speaker Cameron Sexton, who last week oversaw the expulsion of two Democratic lawmakers for protesting gun violence on the House floor, said the chamber “is willing to work towards bipartisan solutions to protect all children at their schools, in their communities, and inside their homes.”

Lee’s announcement comes a day after a shooter opened fire at a bank in Louisville, Kentucky, killing five people, including a “very close friend” of Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear. The gunman in this case also bought his rifle legally a week before the shooting.

Title icon

Step Back

In a video address following the March 28 shooting at the Covenant School, Lee revealed that two of the women killed, Cynthia Peak, 61, and Katherine Koonce, 60, were close friends with his wife, Maria Lee. Koonce was the headmaster at the private Christian K-6 school.

He said that Peak and his wife were scheduled to have dinner the night of the shooting.

Before the executive order, Tennessee had no requirements for background checks or training for handgun owners, though there were some enhanced restrictions for those purchasing rifles or shotguns. The TBI also told NBC that "voluntary treatment for mental conditions are not prohibiting" factors in firearm purchases.

A 2022 Gallup Poll found that more and more Americans are in support of universal background checks, with more than 90% of respondents last year saying they support a check for all gun sales. Still, the National Rifle Association maintains an opposition against any expansion to background checks.

While there is a federal background check system, reports show local jurisdictions often fail to update it with new crime information, and it is only required for licensed firearms dealers.

The Bipartisan Safer Communities Act, which Congress passed last year in the aftermath of the shooting in Uvalde, Texas, allocated federal funding for states to enact red flag laws. But analyses show that states have so far been lagging in implementing these laws.