New law could allow guns at Nashville bus hub used by school students
NASHVILLE, TENN. | Police and security guards keep watch as thousands of children zigzag through Nashville’s downtown bus hub each morning and afternoon, catching buses between home and school.
Barring some court challenge this month, the authorities likely won’t be alone in carrying lethal firepower through the Music City Central station. A law signed by Gov. Bill Haslam that takes effect July 1 will force Nashville to let people carry loaded guns there and potentially even on the city buses thousands of students ride each day.
The law gives local governments an ultimatum: Either let handgun permit-holders carry guns or invest in metal detectors and security guards to inspect bags wherever people enter public facilities.
But transit officials say it’s logistically impossible to add metal detectors at stations and secure all city buses. Even trying to apply airport-style security to a public transit system would cost millions and create commuter chaos, they say.
The law has officials in Tennessee’s large cities fearing for children’s lives, but Republican state lawmakers who approved the change in a largely partyline vote said the law enables people to properly defend themselves.
Both groups point to the same crime to prove their point: a shooting at the bus hub last year that wounded four teenagers and sent middle schoolers and other travelers scrambling for cover.
The policy is another example of conservative lawmakers from rural districts restricting more liberal policies in urban areas. Tennessee’s Republican-led legislature also nixed ordinances in Nashville and Memphis this year that would have discouraged criminal charges for possessing small amounts of marijuana.
The National Rifle Association said the law holds local governments responsible for keeping citizens safe. Opposition mostly has come from Knoxville and Nashville, where school board chair Anna Shepherd said the law puts “the NRA ahead of the safety of our students, and that’s just not right.”
“We have 88,000 students in our school district. We can’t afford to have one accidentally shot. Just not even one,” Ms. Shepherd said.
Adding the security features at stations and on buses could cost the state’s four large urban public transit systems — Nashville, Knoxville, Memphis and Chattanooga — $3.8 million upfront and $36 million annually, and make efficient connections impossible by forcing riders to show up an hour or more in advance to get through security, said Jason Spain, executive director of the Tennessee Public Transit Association.
Nashville’s Metropolitan Transit Authority is still reviewing the law to determine how best to comply, said spokeswoman Amanda Clelland. Nashville Mayor Megan Barry and Knoxville Mayor Madeline Rogero say the law leaves them with only bad options.
The ultimatum could conflict with existing state law, which makes it a felony to bring guns into a facility used for school purposes. It also invites lawsuits, critics say, by giving groups like the NRA standing to sue for triple attorney’s fees if they believe a local government wrongly barred someone from carrying guns.
“We cannot have a situation where someone has a legal right to sue and be granted attorney’s fees and damages to walk into a bus station, and also be convicted of a criminal offense for the very same action,” said Sen. Jeff Yarbro, Nashville Democrat.
Between 4,500 and 5,600 students use Nashville’s free city bus pass program. All public high schoolers and some students in grades 5 through 8 qualify.