Tennessee’s Republican-dominated legislature will return to the state Capitol on Monday, months after a tragic school shooting, with a long list of ideas addressing mental health, school resources, more substantial sentences for violent felons, and other issues.
Any honest consideration of improving Tennessee’s permissive gun regulations will probably be absent from the special legislative session.
On March 27, a shooter opened fire at a Nashville Christian primary school, killing six people, three of whom were children. The tragedy contributed to a record pace of mass killings in the United States this year. It sparked a statewide movement to adopt legislation to keep firearms out of the hands of dangerous people.
BREAKING: Active Shooter Reported at Christian School In Nashville | What We Know: https://t.co/zUAX9VqwRg
— Breaking911 (@Breaking911) March 27, 2023
Desperate families with personal ties to the shooting joined conservative religious groups and even Republican Gov. Bill Lee in advocating for legislation that would temporarily take guns away from persons displaying indicators of possibly dangerous conduct.
“We should address it, weigh in on it,” Lee told reporters this week but added that the General Assembly “ultimately decides” what will pass.
According to law police, the 27-year-old gunman was under “doctor’s care for emotional disorder,” Audrey Hale had been preparing the event for months, and the parents believed Hale should not hold any guns. However, no legal action was taken to prevent Hale from purchasing them, and the police stated that they were unaware of Hale before the incident.
In Tennessee, there are few options for prohibiting persons deemed dangerous to themselves or others from obtaining firearms, with the legal frameworks allowing such actions mostly in domestic violence instances. Some proponents claim that the Covenant School shooting could have been avoided if Tennessee had a so-called red flag statute allowing for severe risk protection orders.
In a rare break with his political party, Lee called for high-risk protection orders and began courting hesitant lawmakers, celebrities, religious leaders, and others. He stressed that his idea was not a “red flag law,” a term he decried as harmful.
The push met with swift opposition. Many Republican senators opposed Lee’s attempt to reject the “red flag” term, siding with gun rights groups opposed to the change. On the other hand, some gun control activists believe Lee’s approach is insufficiently protective.
As Lee’s team has stated, his plan does not allow for using “ex parte” orders, in which a judge enables law officers to remove a person’s firearms before their court appearance. Lee’s office contended that these orders can limit someone’s rights without allowing them to be heard in court first.
Behind the scenes, the state’s chief investigative agency expressed alarm over the exclusion of ex parte orders, fearing what would happen if someone had up to 10 days to appear before a judge while a law enforcement agency petitioned to remove their firearms.
The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation’s worry was expressed in a line-by-line analysis provided to Lee’s office in the spring and obtained by The Associated Press through a public records request.
When Lee published his proposal late in the legislative session, which ended in April, it failed to get enough Republican support even to be heard in committee.
Little appears to have changed since then, and Lee seems to have shifted his rhetoric away from his idea and toward the session’s broader theme — public safety — based on what lawmakers intend to debate.
“That particular piece of legislation has not been picked up by sponsors, but there are dozens of ideas from multiple lawmakers that we believe will make Tennessee safer,” Lee explained.
The GOP appears keen on toughening penalties, claiming that doing so will deter offenders. Critics argue that more should be done to prevent terrorist attacks.
Republican congressional leaders have proposed making any threat of violence against two or more persons a felony, with dramatically higher penalties for threats against a school, church, or government structure. Currently, the penalty is a misdemeanor.
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“So much of the discussion about this special session has centered on guns, but inanimate objects are not the problem,” said Republican sponsor Sen. Ferrell Haile. “Violent criminals are the source of the problem.”
Other bills that could be considered include keeping children’s autopsies private. According to supporters, The Covenant School families pushed the proposal. Republican legislators have also filed measures to boost school security, add mental health facilities, reform the state’s background check system, and require mandatory handgun classes to include instruction on proper firearm storage.
Democratic members have submitted their proposals, but Republican supermajorities will almost certainly prohibit them from moving forward. Tensions remain high after Republicans evicted two Democrats in April for participating in a gun control protest on the House floor, only to have their voters re-elect them as nationally recognized figures.
One Democratic plan would raise stalking penalties if the victim were a health care practitioner targeted for providing gender-affirming or abortion services; another would make coercing a kid to steal a firearm a crime.
“Tennesseans from all walks of life have made it clear: They want lawmakers to work together to pass reforms that save children’s lives by preventing gun violence before it happens,” said Memphis Democrat Senate Minority Leader Raumesh Akbari.
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