Alexis MarshallWPLN News
Demonstrators rallied at the Tennessee State Capitol this spring to call for tougher gun laws in the wake of the Covenant School shooting. A recent poll from Vanderbilt suggests most Tennesseans agree.
After years of indifference, Tennesseans now believe guns is one of the top issues facing the state.
That’s one finding in a new poll from Vanderbilt University that is being released Wednesday.
Researchers believe the jump in support for gun legislation is the direct result of the Covenant School shooting in late March. Most Democrats and most Republicans, including a majority of self-described “MAGA Republicans,” told pollsters they support tougher background checks for firearms purchases. A large majority also favors red-flag laws that take guns from potentially dangerous people and laws that require gun owners to store their firearms securely.
“Guns are a chief concern among Democrats, but there is wide agreement between the most liberal and most conservative voters in the state on support for the red flag laws that the governor has talked about,” Vanderbilt political science professor Josh Clinton said in a press release announcing the findings. “There is strong support for action even from MAGA Republicans and strong supporters of the NRA.”
The poll of just over 1,000 registered voters in Tennessee was conducted in mid-April, just weeks after the Covenant School shooting. Pollsters believe that event has galvanized support for some new gun regulations in Tennessee.
They note that, for most of the Vanderbilt Poll’s 11-year history, guns ranked last or second to last in importance for Tennesseans. Now it’s the third-most important issue — behind only education and the economy.
Eighty-two percent of respondents told Vanderbilt that they support an executive order signed by Gov. Bill Lee after the Covenant School shooting that strengthened background checks for firearms purchases. The poll found 72% favor red flag laws to prevent gun-related violence and about 64% favor support laws that could punish gun owners for not securing their guns. Support was even higher when pollsters said such measures might prevent school shootings.
Those findings coincide with a sharp drop in support for the Tennessee General Assembly. State lawmakers adjourned for the year without taking action on gun legislation. The debate over guns also set in motion the chain of events that led to the much-criticized expulsion of two Black lawmakers by the Republican supermajority in the Tennessee House.
Last fall, before this year’s legislative session, 55% of Tennesseans said they held a favorable view of the General Assembly and only 34% disapproved — a net approval of 21 percentage points. Now, 48% disapprove and only 43% approve — a net disapproval of 5 percentage points.
Vanderbilt says that’s the lowest approval level for the state legislature since it began polling statewide in May 2012.
Gov. Bill Lee, who has called for lawmakers to return to Nashville for a special session on guns, continues to enjoy a favorable approval rating. Fifty-three percent of Tennesseans back the governor, down just four percentage points since last fall.
Disagreement over assault weapons and LGBTQ rights
One place where Tennesseans disagree is whether to ban assault-style weapons. About 91% of Democrats favor such a ban. That support falls to 49% among independents, to 31% among non-MAGA Republicans and to 17% among MAGA Republicans.
Voters also had differing opinions on how the state legislature has handled laws affecting Tennessee’s LGBTQ community. Voters supported bans on “adult cabaret entertainment,” a euphemism used in legislation that cracks down on public drag performances, at nearly two to one. But they are against restricting transgender individuals’ access to health care.
Overall, 80% of Democrats disapprove of the state legislature’s handling of LGBTQ rights, as did 56% of non-MAGA Republicans.
But on the issue of abortion, Vanderbilt pollsters say they did see some common ground. The vast majority of Tennesseans, regardless of political affiliation, say it shouldn’t be a crime to help a person cross state lines to get an abortion, and they say abortion should be allowed to prevent death or serious health risk to the patient.
Most Tennesseans also support keeping mifepristone, one of the drugs used in medication abortions, legal.