Tennessee Gov. Lee issues formal call for gun safety legislative session to begin Aug. 21

Staff photo by Olivia Ross / Gov. Bill Lee speaks to the audience. Governor Bill Lee signed the Transportation Modernization Act at the site of the Apison Pike reconstruction as part of the governor’s “Build with us Tour” on Tuesday, July 18, 2023.
Staff photo by Olivia Ross / Gov. Bill Lee speaks to the audience. Governor Bill Lee signed the Transportation Modernization Act at the site of the Apison Pike reconstruction as part of the governor’s “Build with us Tour” on Tuesday, July 18, 2023.

NASHVILLE — Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee on Tuesday issued the formal call for his special session on public safety in the wake of a deadly March 27 shooting at The Covenant School, a private elementary school in Nashville where three 9-year-olds and three adults were killed by a 28-year-old former student police have said was under a doctor's care.

The session is to begin Aug. 21 and will include 17 topics as well as an 18th provision authorizing expenditures to fund anything that passes the General Assembly, which is dominated by Lee's fellow Republicans.

Topics cited in the call include temporary mental health orders of protection, which must be initiated by law enforcement and require a legal due process hearing. It would require the person to undergo evaluation and also requires authorities to make the case by "clear and convincing evidence" for an order of protection. The order would be reevaluated at least every 180 days days and not permit orders without both sides being present in the courtroom.

But it wasn't immediately clear whether Lee's original proposal to create an "emergency order of protection," which would set up a legal process to remove firearms from troubled people, could be considered. Lee, who along with his wife, Maria, knew Covenant's head of school, who was killed in the spree, had proposed creating such an order but faced blowback from his fellow Republicans in the legislature as well as gun-rights activists.

Some Democrats don't think it does.

"For such a broad call, this proclamation somehow manages to miss the target," House Democratic Caucus Chair John Ray Clemmons of Nashville said in a statement. "Gov. Lee has again wilted in the face of the legislative supermajority. The clear losers are Tennessee families and school children."

Clemmons charged the GOP supermajority and leadership have "utterly failed our families."

Lee, however, said he believes the special session will help strengthen public safety within the state.

"As our nation faces evolving public safety threats, Tennessee remains vigilant and is taking continued action to protect communities while preserving the constitutional rights of law-abiding citizen," Lee said in statement. "In the months leading up to the public safety special session, we have listened to Tennesseans and worked with members of the General Assembly to identify thoughtful, practical measures to strengthen public safety across our state, including steps to support law enforcement, address mental health, prevent violent crime and stop human trafficking.

"I thank the General Assembly for its continued partnership and look forward to achieving meaningful results for Tennesseans," the governor said.

Under Lee's proposal, lawmakers could also look at changing the structure of courts. Another provision of his call would allow lawmakers to consider "blended" sentences for juveniles convicted of violent crimes. It lets judges order juveniles to continue to be imprisoned after they reach age 19.

Other provisions would provide for mental health services, commitments or services, school safety plans or policies and health providers' duty to warn about potential violent offenses. Another area opened up for lawmakers to consider is safe storage of firearms.

Rep. Gloria Johnson, D-Knoxville, criticized Lee's call, calling it "incredibly disappointing.

"This call looks more like a scheme to block common sense gun safety reform than an h0nest effort to stop gun violence," Johnson posted on social media. "Instead of ensuring access to health care or removing weapons from a person in crisis, the governor would rather lock you up."

She charged the scope was so limited that Lee "broke his promise to Covenant families."

Twenty-one other states have enacted red flag laws in reaction to mass shootings. Lee had initially proposed having emergency orders of protection. Unlike "extreme risk orders of protection" red-flag laws where a judge could remove firearms from a person without the gun-owners' presence, the governor's proposal would allow the person whose weapons are to be seized to participate in a legal proceeding. Critics said it would keep guns in the hands 0f troubled people for up to three-to-five days.

Meanwhile, gun rights groups and a number of the governor's fellow Republicans in the legislature, charged Lee's plan was still a red flag law.

Many of Lee's fellow Republicans in the legislature were opposed to the special session, saying it could have awaited the legislature's return in January. Last weekend, the Tennessee Republican Party's State Executive Committee came out against the special session as well.

Republican House Speaker Cameron Sexton, R-Crossville, who has said a red flag law won't pass, issued his own statement.

"We look forward to the opportunity to strengthen public safety and mental health resources without infringing on the rights of law-abiding Tennesseans," he wrote in a social media post.

Sexton and others, among them Tennessee Firearms Association Executive Director John Harris, have proposed that instead of removing firearms from some to make it easier to have the person committed for observation and treatment.

Covenant families have formed two nonprofit groups to press changes to Tennessee gun laws, one of them a political committee.

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

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