NASHVILLE — Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee called Tuesday for state lawmakers to pass a law aimed at preventing guns from getting in the hands of people who are a danger to themselves or others.
The Republican governor also said he will sign a new executive order later Tuesday aimed at strengthening background checks on firearm purchases.
"I'm asking the General Assembly to bring forward an order of protection law," Lee said in a news conference at a Nashville police station. "A new, strong order of protection law will provide the broader population cover, safety, from those who are a danger to themselves or the population.
"This is our moment to lead and to give the people of Tennessee what they deserve."
Lee spoke to reporters in response to the March 27 killings of three 9-year-old children and three adults at The Covenant School in Nashville by a 28-year-old former student. Authorities have said the person, Audrey Hale, had mental health issues. The shooting made national headlines and ignited debate about gun laws in Tennessee.
The governor's news conference was held in the Nashville police Midtown Hills Precinct, whose officers responded to the shooting. Hale was killed by responding officers.
"I think everyone — leadership from speakers as well as other leaders — have expressed a desire to do something and move forward," Lee said. "I have challenged them to bring forward ideas and subsequently met with those leaders. I do believe we should get it done during this session."
Lee was careful not to call his proposal a red flag law, a term disdained by some Second Amendment purists who object to any restraints on gun rights.
Lee said the existing background-check process for firearm purchases only works when there is accurate and timely information available.
The governor's executive order will create a 72-hour period for reporting new criminal activity and require courts to provide the information directly to the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation for background check purposes.
The governor provided no details on the order of protection measure, saying he is hoping to work out details with Lt. Gov. Randy McNally, the Republican Senate speaker of Oak Ridge, and House Speaker Cameron Sexton, R-Crossville. McNally has expressed support for some type of red flag law.
Sexton said the House is willing to work on it in a bipartisan process.
"We all appreciate Gov. Lee's leadership and his commitment to finding solutions to stop tragedies like The Covenant School shooting from two weeks ago," Sexton said in a statement. "As we look at mental health orders of protection, they must have a level of due process, protections from fraudulent claims and a quick judicial hearing for individuals who pose imminent threats. The House is willing to work toward bipartisan solutions to protect all children at their schools, in their communities and inside their homes."
The shootings propelled Nashville and Tennessee into the national spotlight, sparking massive demonstrations at the state Capitol over gun access in a Republican-led state that has devoted years to relaxing gun restrictions.
Two Democratic freshmen, Justin Jones of Nashville and Justin Pearson of Memphis, staged an impromptu demonstration with a bullhorn on the House floor March 30, leading hundreds of protesters in chant and throwing the chamber into chaos. They were joined by Rep. Gloria Johnson, a Knoxville Democrat.
Republicans last week expelled Jones and Pearson for their actions. Johnson survived expulsion by a single vote.
Metro Nashville Council members appointed Jones on Monday to his seat, and the lawmaker continued his criticisms of permissive Tennessee gun laws. Pearson is up for reappointment to his seat on Wednesday at the Shelby County Commission.
On Twitter, Chattanooga Mayor Tim Kelly praised Lee for the move.
"I commend Gov. Lee for his leadership and fully support these measures," the mayor wrote. "It's just common sense that people who are a danger to themselves or others shouldn't have access to firearms — these steps will keep families safe without infringing on the rights of law-abiding gun owners."
Kelly and several other large city or county mayors have been supporting legislation that would require gun owners to lock their weapons securely in vehicles or boats, saying gun theft is an epidemic.
But Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, last week moved all remaining gun bills to 2024, citing the emotional atmosphere following the Nashville shootings. That included the bill requiring guns be secured in vehicles but also extends to others that have gun-rights groups upset. For example, Gardenhire's committee stripped rifles, including semi-automatic weapons, from a permitless carry bill.
Tennessee Firearms Association Executive Director John Harris, an attorney, said in a phone interview that Tennessee already has an emergency committal order process involving law enforcement, a medical health provider, a mental health provider and a clinical social work professional. They are called when a family member, spouse, significant other, teacher or co-worker say a person is a risk and a threat and actually may have threatened them.
A mobile crisis team comes to examine the person and sign, under oath, that the team members have determined the person has been evaluated and has mental or emotional health problems and as a result poses an immediate threat to themselves or others, Harris said. That allows the person to be detained for up to two weeks.
Harris said the person is entitled to an evidentiary hearing with an attorney to provide due process, with a judge deciding whether there is probable cause for treatment needs or an emergency committal and whether that should prevent them from possessing guns.
The attorney said the extreme risk protection process officials are now discussing is likely to be different than the existing process. Harris also questioned whether it would be even possible under the U.S. Supreme Court's Bruen ruling last year on state gun laws. He cited a U.S. 5th Circuit of Appeals ruling this year that he said found orders of protection are unconstitutional under the Second Amendment and 14th Amendment.