In firearm-friendly Texas, two Republicans on a House committee helped advance a bill to raise the minimum age to buy AR-15-style weapons. In Tennessee, a Republican governor known for championing looser gun laws has called a special legislative session to consider tighter ones “to strengthen the safety” of the state. In North Carolina, the GOP-dominated legislature dropped a proposal to allow gun owners to carry concealed weapons without a permit.
In several capitols across red America, gun-control advocates say they are seeing faint — if, sometimes, fleeting — fissures in what has long been staunch Republican opposition to any whiff of firearms restriction. The small shifts have come amid a gruesome torrent of mass killings in red states, including shootings at a school in Tennessee, a bank in Kentucky, a home outside Houston and, earlier this month, at a suburban Dallas outlet mall where eight were killed.
The shootings have called into question GOP support for allowing more people access to weapons to stem violence and demonstrate support for constitutional rights.
The hints of change cut against of broader trends in GOP-controlled states, where Republicans have generally expanded gun access in recent years while pointing to mental illness as the cause of a mass killing epidemic. Lawmakers in Nebraska and Florida passed permitless carry this year, and in a sign that the legislative majority still defends gun rights, Republican leaders in Texas let the age-minimum measure die before a full House vote.
But advocates for gun restrictions say they view any consideration of firearms control — and even some recent pauses in the march to loosen regulations — as notable signs that the outcry over rising gun violence and death in red states may be cracking Republican resolve on the issue. Between 2020 and 2022, death rates from firearms in states with GOP-controlled legislatures outpaced rates in blue states, according to a Post analysis of CDC data, including about a 50 percent higher rate of deaths from firearm assaults and around a 35 percent higher rate of mass killings.
“The fact that we’re seeing Republican leaders ask for some type of gun safety reform is new. For the last 20, 30 years, we haven’t been able to get Republicans to talk about this issue, let alone move on it,” said Sean Holihan, state legislative director at the gun-control group Giffords. “In these communities that have been devastated by mass shootings and gun deaths, I think there is a universal cry to do something.”
The signs, he cautioned, may be temporary, spurred by mass murders that in some cases have hit shockingly close to home. In March, a former student fatally shot three children and three employees at the private Covenant School, just 17 miles from the Tennessee Capitol; Republican Gov. Bill Lee and his wife counted two victims, a substitute teacher and the head of the Christian school, as close friends. The state is at a “pivotal moment” of potential change, Lee said on April 19.
“I’ve seen a big shift,” said state Rep. Caleb Hemmer, a Democrat from a swing district in the suburbs of Nashville. “The gun issue and the Covenant tragedy have transcended partisan lines, religious lines, and traditional Republican constituencies.”
Tennessee is one of the deadliest states for gun violence and has some of the nation’s laxest gun measures, according to the Everytown for Gun Safety, which advocates for gun control and analyzes state measures. Before the Covenant shooting, Republican lawmakers were considering bills to lower the age of permitless carry from 21 to 18 and another measure to arm teachers — proposals that were set aside after the tragedy.
Those sorts of efforts to expand gun rights continue to move forward in several states. Twenty-seven states now require no permit — and no training — to carry a handgun, 12 more than in 2020. Mississippi enacted a law allowing teachers to be armed, and Missouri, Oklahoma and Texas are all advancing similar proposals.
Seven GOP-led legislatures have passed laws this year that in some way discourage companies and funds from endorsing gun control. Oklahoma now allows gun owners to carry weapons on boats. Utah lawmakers prohibited the state from enforcing federal firearms restrictions and rejected waiting periods for gun purchases and a safe storage law.
In some cases, small victories celebrated by gun-control advocates have been tempered by movement in the other direction.
In early May, the North Carolina House surprised observers by dropping a permitless carry bill that had sailed through committees, the kind of modest win that has given advocates optimism this spring. But one month before, its Republican supermajority overrode a veto by Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper of a bill allowing handgun purchases without a permit.
In South Carolina, Gov. Henry McMaster (R) has urged lawmakers to pass stiffer penalties for illegal gun possession in response to rising homicides. But McMaster also supports a permitless carry bill that has passed a Senate committee.
Elsewhere, Republican movement on gun control is near-microscopic but, advocates contend, not meaningless. Everytown activists in South Dakota — whose Republican governor boasted at an NRA convention last month that her 2-year-old granddaughter owns a shotgun and a rifle — celebrated hearings on measures to require the safe storage and red-flag laws, which can result in the seizure of guns from people deemed a risk to themselves or others, as “a historic step in the right direction,” though committees rejected both.
In Texas, during the first legislative session since 19 students and two teachers were fatally shot at a Uvalde elementary school last year, gun legislation has also seemed more neutral than in previous years, advocates on both sides said. Wes Virdell, state director of Gun Owners of America, called the session “lackluster,” with his group’s priority bills mostly stalled. That is partly because the 2021 passage of permitless carry gave gun rights activists a sense that “the battle was won,” he said, but also because of the endless cadence of mass killings.
“Emotions are high, and Republicans don’t want to push any of that issue, as far as the pro-gun side of it, right now,” Virdell said.
Texas lawmakers are expected to pass and spend millions of dollars on school safety measures, including one that would mandate at least one armed employee on every school campus. They are also considering budgeting $4.2 million for a program that helps people experiencing early symptoms of psychosis — an investment mental health advocates say is welcome but not an answer for gun violence, the majority of which is not attributable to mental illness.
Meanwhile, gun-control advocates had more opportunity to testify before a new House committee, formed in the wake of the Uvalde shooting, that focused on gun safety, said Nicole Golden, executive director of Texas Gun Sense, an organization advocating tightened access to weapons.
She said her group has felt less on the defense than in years when Republicans seemed to determined to expand access to weapons.
Then, on Monday, Uvalde parents amassed at the capitol to push for the age minimum bill. Proponents argue it could have stopped the 18-year-old Uvalde shooter from purchasing the weapons he used. During the committee hearing, Republican Reps. Sam Harless and Justin Holland stunned activists when they voted to advance the measure.
Harless, who did not respond to an interview request, told NPR after the vote that “shootings right now are just happening too often.” In a Twitter statement, Holland emphasized his A-rating from the NRA, which he acknowledged might now be in jeopardy.
“I do not believe in gun control,” Holland added. But, he said, “I became convinced that this small change to the law might serve as a significant roadblock to a young person (not old enough to buy tobacco or alcohol) acquiring a specific type of semiautomatic rifle intent upon using it in a destructive and illegal manner.”
A third Republican not on the committee, Rep. Frederick Frazier — who had been shopping at the Allen outlet mall an hour before the shooting there — told a local television network that it was “absolutely” time to consider restrictions.
“My phone has been blowing up with constituents asking, ‘What are we doing?’ And these are folks that voted for me,” he said.
Gun-control advocates were elated, though their victory was short-lived. The deadline for scheduling a floor vote on the measure expired a day later, killing the bill for the year.
Still, the committee vote was “a milestone achievement,” Golden said, and the Republicans’ statements remarkable. “That is a shift, a total shift. … maybe those relationships can be built upon.”
Republicans in Tennessee have been in a state of disarray since the Covenant shooting, which prompted demonstrators to crowd the halls of the state capitol, demanding gun-control measures. A vote by the Republican-dominated House to expel two young Black Democratic lawmakers who led protests in the chamber only seemed to invigorate the outcry.
In the days following the shooting, Lee appeared to soften his stance on gun control, signing an executive order to tighten background checks and citing “recent tragedies.”
He then began a push for an “order of protection law” allowing the temporary confiscation of firearms from people a judge determines are a risk to themselves or others. His lieutenant governor, a Republican, also said he supported such a measure, though neither referred to it by a more common label that is toxic on the right: a red-flag law, versions of which have been passed by 19 other states and the District.
In an April 19 video asking the legislature to pass the measure, Lee referred to “pragmatic leaders who collectively stepped outside their party lines to do what they thought was the right thing, changing the course of history for the better.”
The suggestion outraged members of Lee’s party. “Any red-flag law is a non-starter,” the Tennessee House Republicans said on Twitter.
The legislature adjourned unexpectedly early without taking up Lee’s request. Lee then said he would call members back for a special session on firearms and public safety on August 21. The governor’s spokeswoman, Jade Byers, did not return emails requesting comment.
John Harris III, executive director of the Tennessee Firearms Association, said in an interview that Lee is “emotionally responding to an extreme event” with an idea that has little backing among Republicans.
“The governor can call a cow patty a chocolate cake but if it looks and smells like a cow patty that’s what it is,” Harris said of Lee’s rejection of the “red flag” label.
The stiff GOP opposition has led to muted expectations among Democrats and advocates for August’s special session.
But some Tennessee Republicans have broken ranks. In a letter to the Tennessean last month, the state’s former GOP chairman, Brent Leatherwood, the father of three children who survived the Covenant shooting, urged elected officials to “oppose evil and protect innocent lives” by passing Lee’s proposal.
“It is true we live in a world tainted by terrible acts and deeds, but that is never an excuse for inaction,” wrote Leatherwood, now president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission.
Vanderbilt University researchers found in a semiannual survey — conducted after the March school shooting — that 82 percent of Tennessean voters support Lee’s executive order on gun background checks, while three quarters support a red-flag law.
The pollsters also detected a sea change, the school said: In all previous surveys since 2012, respondents ranked guns last or nearly last among 10 state government priorities. In April, guns ranked third, behind education and the economy.
In the weeks since the Covenant shooting, a small group of mothers — many of them Republicans — formed Voices for a Safer Tennessee, a bipartisan nonprofit to advocate for gun safety legislation.
Co-founder Jennifer Hellmer, 38, an attorney, gun owner and mother of two, said she was trapped in her car at an intersection about 200 yards away from Covenant as police responded to the shooting, and she watched small children flee.
After the shooting, “people were speaking out about guns differently than I had seen before,” said Hellmer, a Republican. “The conversation was changing.”
Andrew Ba Tran, Scott Clement and John Harden contributed to this report.