Tennessee Republican executive committee asks Gov. Lee to drop special session on gun safety

Gov. Bill Lee calls for a question during a news conference April 3 in Nashville, Tenn. Lee held a news conference with state legislative leaders to talk about proposed legislation to address gun violence in schools. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)
Gov. Bill Lee calls for a question during a news conference April 3 in Nashville, Tenn. Lee held a news conference with state legislative leaders to talk about proposed legislation to address gun violence in schools. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

MT. JULIET, Tenn. — Tennessee Republican State Executive Committee members Saturday adopted a resolution that encourages Gov. Bill Lee to drop his planned Aug. 21 special legislative session where the Republican governor hopes to bolster the state's gun-safety laws despite most GOP leaders' opposition.

One committee member charged during the meeting in a Mt. Juliet hotel that the gathering will put House and Senate Republican members in danger with "crazies" from outside Tennessee flooding the state Capitol.

The eventual language settled on was proposed by another committee member, Tina Benkiser of Signal Mountain.

"The Tennessee Republican Party encourages Gov. Bill Lee to reconsider and not have a special session Aug. 21, 2023," her amendment said.

Immediate efforts to reach a Lee spokeswoman by text were not successful.

Lee, a Republican, announced in early May he would call the special session after GOP members adjourned without addressing his call to bolster state firearms laws following the deadly March 27 gun assault on a private Christian elementary school in which three children and three adults were killed.

The governor and his wife, Maria Lee, were friends of the headmaster. The 28-year-old shooter, Audrey Hale, had once been a student at the school. She was under a doctor's care, authorities have said.

"I think Tennesseans not only are proud of but understand the Second Amendment," Benkiser told the Chattanooga Times Free Press after the committee wrapped up. "They are proud and agree with the Constitution of the United States.

"I feel at this point a lot of this is really emotion as opposed to rational and reasoned," Benkiser added. "My concern, and a lot of others' concerns, is that some of the proposals we've heard really violate due process of law. And that is a fundamental concern. And when you start talking about potentially infringing on people's constitutional rights, that needs to be thought out over a long period of time with people who have thought, debated, looked at the language and fleshed all that out. Not something to be rushed through."

Benkiser said she hopes Lee will take heed of the GOP action.

"I understand that people sometimes act out of emotion when something horrendous has happened, as happened here in Nashville, but really to friends of his. I understand that, and I think the natural reaction is to want to do something and to want to do something now. But like I said, when you're talking about constitutional rights, at the end of the day, you need to take the time to think that out."

Near the end of this year's regular session, Lee proposed that lawmakers enact an "order of protection" law, allowing a judge to revoke gun rights for a person deemed dangerous. Lee's proposal was rejected by critics as a red flag law, but he said his proposal differed from those enacted in other states because of additional due process provisions.

That's failed to persuade GOP lawmakers. Lee has held multiple meetings with small groups of lawmakers in recent weeks, seeking to hear what they want.

The motion on a resolution was originally proposed by Chris Morris, an executive committee member from Giles County.

"He's putting the state, he's putting legislators, both the House and Senate in danger," Morris said at the meeting. "We'll be the only state in a special session, and guess what? We're going to be inundated with those others, for these crazies from other states."

Morris said he was in the House gallery earlier this year as House Republicans expelled two lawmakers as they staged an impromptu floor protest of state gun laws following the Covenant shooting.

"I don't know how many of y'all were up there — I was — when they removed the lawmakers, and it was crazy being one of two people in the gallery with all these nuts around you," Morris said. "And the problem is, we as Republicans don't get off our do-nothing and quit leaning back on our elbows and do less and go up there and support these legislators.

"We should be the ones packing the House. We have the majority, but we don't. ... I just think this body, we should issue a statement to the governor to stop" and not formally call lawmakers back to Nashville.

Committee member John Stanbery of Cleveland told the Times Free Press that legislators had an opportunity to pass the order of protection bill when they were in regular session and chose not to.

"So I personally do not know why you would call them back to do something they've already rejected," Stanbery said. "They rejected it by choosing not to do it. Secondly, I think it paints a target on all their backs. I think they're going to come up here and have to walk a gantlet. And a lot of it will be out-of-state people. And so I think it puts an unreasonable strain not only on government but their safety and security."

State GOP Chairman Scott Golden told two reporters following the meeting that his sense of executive committee members' feelings is they'd prefer not to have the special session but be able to address firearms issues during their regular session that starts in January.

"We'll send [the resolution] as soon as we get the final language and everything, we'll send it to the governor and all the appropriate officials the sense of where the Republican Party" is, Golden said.

Asked what effect the resolution would have, Golden said he personally has no knowledge of where things stand with Lee. But he noted he had spoken with enough legislators to know they don't feel comfortable with everything going on.

"So I think our members are very reflective, they talk to their legislators as well, and I think that was the sense of what the Tennessee Republican Party said today," Golden said.

Many GOP lawmakers are opposed to the special session generally and especially the proposed order of protection measure.

Republicans are considering a number of other measures such as changing state laws to make it easier to jail people making armed threats and investing more money into mental health and building new facilities for violent juveniles. That has the support of the Tennessee Firearms Association.

Some members of the 66-member executive committee had left by the time of the voice vote, and no roll call was recorded.

"I don't know that anyone was opposed," Golden said, adding there were 34 members present, a number of whom had proxy votes from other Republican members who weren't present.

Contact Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com or 615-285-9480.