By Jill Nolin, Georgia Recorder
A majority of Tennessee voters support so-called red flag laws designed to take guns out of the hands of people at risk for harming themselves or others, according to a new poll by Vanderbilt University
The Vanderbilt Poll was conducted three weeks after a deadly mass shooting at The Covenant School claimed the lives of three children and three adults. Among the 1,003 voters surveyed, the poll found bipartisan support for red flag laws, with 72% of voters overall supporting such laws to prevent gun-related violence, a number that increased to 75% when the question was specific to school shootings.
"Guns are a chief concern among Democrats, but there is wide agreement between the most liberal and the most conservative voters in the state on the support for the red flag laws that the governor has talked about." — Josh Clinton, co-director, Vanderbilt Poll
The results, released Wednesday, come after a bruising session in the Tennessee Legislature that saw the ouster, then reinstatement, of two Black lawmakers calling for gun reform and days of protests inside and outside the state capitol — all captured by an unflattering national spotlight.
Despite public calls for lawmakers to take action – including one from Gov. Bill Lee urging the GOP majority to enact an order of protection law giving courts the right to remove guns from at-risk individuals — the legislature adjourned without taking action on guns.
Gov. Bill Lee has since called for a special legislative session to address public safety this summer at which his proposed order of protection law — the governor has declined to call it a “red flag law” although it is identical to one — is expected to be considered.
“Guns are a chief concern among Democrats, but there is wide agreement between the most liberal and the most conservative voters in the state on the support for the red flag laws that the governor has talked about,” Josh Clinton, co-director of the Vanderbilt Poll, said in a news release.
The poll revealed mounting dissatisfaction with the state’s GOP leadership, reflected in plummeting approval ratings for the Tennessee Legislature. Last fall, 55% of voters approved of the work of the Legislature, with 34% disapproving – a net approval of 21%.
Tuesday’s poll found the net approval rating has dropped to negative 5% – the lowest level since the Vanderbilt Poll first began documenting voters’ views on the work of the state legislature in 2012.
Lee’s approval rating dipped by four percentage points and the state’s two U.S. senators — Marsha Blackburn and Bill Hagerty — both saw a two-point drop in their approval.
The poll also found widespread support for Lee’s executive order, issued in the days after the school shooting, to strengthen background checks for firearms purchases.
Overall, 82% of Tennesseans polled supported the stronger background checks. The support was 72% among self-described MAGA Republicans, 81% of “non-MAGA” Republicans, 91% among Democrats and 78% of Independents.
The poll found bipartisan support for laws that require gun holders to securely store their weapons, with 54% of Republicans, 68% of Independents and 91% of Democrats supporting such laws.
There remained a partisan divide over assault weapons. Polling found 91% of Democrats supported a ban on assault weapons, while just 31% of non-MAGA Republicans and 17% of MAGA Republicans indicated support; among Independents, nearly half – 49% – supported a ban.
While Tennessee has one of the strictest abortion bans in the nation, two-thirds polled said abortion should be illegal after 15 weeks with exceptions for rape, incest or to save the life of the mother, including 87% of MAGA Republicans, 83% of non-MAGA Republicans and 65% of Independents. Nearly a third of Democrats (31%) agreed.
Currently Tennessee’s abortion ban has no exceptions for rape or incest and does not provide any window for early abortions. The legislature last month enacted limited exceptions to spare the life of mother and provide some protections from prosecution for physicians performing abortions in those circumstances.
The poll found mixed views on the state legislature’s approach to laws impacting LGBTQ Tennesseans. Overall 47% of those polled disapproved of the legislature’s handling of LGBTQ issues. But among Republicans, 56% of MAGA-affiliated party members supported the Legislature’s approach, but fewer than half of non-MAGA Republicans did.
When asked about specific policies, the majority of those polled (63%) favored banning adult cabarets in public spaces.
That majority flipped when asked about restricting transgender individuals’ access to healthcare, with 66% opposed to such restrictions.
Anita Wadhwani is a senior reporter for the Tennessee Lookout. The Tennessee AP Broadcasters and Media (TAPME) named her Journalist of the Year in 2019 as well as giving her the Malcolm Law Award for Investigative Journalism. Wadhwani is formerly an investigative reporter with The Tennessean who focused on the impact of public policies on the people and places across Tennessee.
Now more than ever, tough and fair journalism is important. The Tennessee Lookout is your watchdog, telling the stories of politics and policy that affect the people of the Volunteer State.
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