Two sides of Tennessee gun debate have different approaches in response to Nashville school shooting

People in the gallery hold signs in support of gun reform during a special session of the state legislature Monday, Aug. 21, 2023, in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/George Walker IV)
People in the gallery hold signs in support of gun reform during a special session of the state legislature Monday, Aug. 21, 2023, in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/George Walker IV)

NASHVILLE — Tennessee lawmakers began their special session on public safety Monday with Republican leaders saying their members won't approve gun-control laws to make it easier to remove firearms temporarily from troubled individuals.

"I think our hope is that when we complete our work here, Tennessee will be safer than it is now after we finish and that we will not have infringed on anyone's civil liberties," House Majority Leader William Lamberth, R-Portland, said after emerging from a closed-door House GOP Caucus meeting earlier Monday.

House GOP Caucus Chairman Jeremy Faison of Cosby also weighed in.

"I will remind you that there is not anybody in my district that's complaining that there's not a red flag law passed or emergency protection filed," Faison said. "I haven't had anybody in my district complain about that. This is a representation of the whole state, not Nashville and Memphis."

Republican Gov. Bill Lee called for the special session following the attack on The Covenant School, a Christian elementary school in Nashville's affluent Green Hills neighborhood.

Three 9-year-old children and three adults died after a 28-year-old former Covenant student attacked the school armed with semi-automatic rifles and a pistol. The shooter had been under treatment for an unspecified emotional disorder, police said.


New rules

Before the start of the special session, various groups rallied, among them Moms Demand Action and Students Demand Action. A group of Proud Boys, a far-right group, meanwhile, unfurled a banner above the steps leading to the Tennessee Capitol.

As proceedings in the House got underway Monday, the Republican supermajority generated a furor among Democrats over new rules GOP members proposed for the special session. It came after two Democratic lawmakers, Reps. Justin Jones of Nashville and Justin Pearson of Memphis, were expelled last spring by GOP lawmakers for disrupting proceedings for nearly an hour with an impromptu floor demonstration involving bullhorns. They led protesters in the House galleries with chants demanding gun restrictions following The Covenant School shooting.

Republicans in the spring voted to expel both men, creating national news and also enabling both to raise money because they were no longer in the legislature. Sitting lawmakers in Tennessee are not allowed to fundraise while the General Assembly is in session. They collectively raised about $2 million before local county government bodies reappointed them to their seats. They have since won re-election.

Under the new rules, adopted on a 73-23 party-line vote, there are new limits on the number of members of the public able to go into the galleries to observe proceedings. And any member deemed to have cast doubt on a fellow member's character or integrity would lose the ability to speak on the floor. Second offenses would result in a three-day ban followed by a six-day ban for a third offense.

A fourth offense would result in the member not being able to speak for the remainder of a session. Members would still be able to vote.


Sign ban

Other provisions ban visitors from carrying signs.

"Why are we scared of a sign?" Pearson said. "What is the sign going to do to you and your children? Nothing, because it has nothing to do with the sign."

He denounced rules allow the silencing of members "without debate," calling it an "abuse of power."

The purpose of the new rules is to make sure everyone's voice is heard, Lamberth said.

An ad-hoc committee comprised of the speaker pro tem, the majority and minority leaders, and the House Republican and Democratic Caucus chairs would make disciplinary recommendations to the speaker for members found to have impugned the reputation of others during committee meetings.

The rules ban bullhorns or other noise amplification devices. Members of the public will find it more difficult to enter the Capitol building. A tunnel that connects the Cordell Hull building, where members have their offices and committee rooms, to the Capitol will be closed to the public for 30 minutes before a floor session and also 30 minutes following a session.

Democrats also complained some of their bills aren't being heard. Republicans said the topics fell outside the special session called by Lee.


Democrat bills

In April, Lee had called on lawmakers to enact a judicial order of protection law setting up a process to remove firearms from mentally ill people. His fellow Republicans, who dominate the General Assembly, rejected that. In his special session call, Lee included a narrowly drawn order of protection provision in his list of topics. But the governor appears to have expended all the political capital he will spend and has not included it among measures he personally is pushing.

Republicans have derided the order of protection bill as a red flag law. However, two Democratic lawmakers, Sen. Jeff Yarbro and Rep. Bob Freeman, both of Nashville, have introduced a bill creating a process for law enforcement to petition a circuit court for a temporary mental health order of protection for a person who poses a "significant danger" of causing personal injury to themselves or others by having a firearm.

Melissa Alexander, a Covenant parent, and some other parents endorsed the bill.

"Today, we're announcing our support for House Bill 7100, which creates a process for law enforcement to petition a judge for a temporary mental health order of protection," Alexander said in a statement. "This order of protection bill is not perfect, but it is a good start. We urge members of the House and Senate to support this bill."

Another measure some parents support is House Bill 7098, which creates a voluntary "do not sell" firearm list for individuals who are experiencing mental illness and can volunteer themselves to be added to this list to protect themselves and people in their communities, Alexander said. The bill is sponsored by Rep. Sabi "Doc" Kumar, a Republican physician from Springfield, and Sen. Joey Hensley, a Republican physician from Hohenwald.

The GOP-dominated House and Senate convened Monday under tight security in the Capitol, leading to complaints from dozens of would-be attendees.


Republican bills

Republican members have introduced bills, including one to arm teachers on school grounds if they have an enhanced handgun-carry permit and complete basic training in school policing.

Another bill introduced adds categories of professionals who are required to report threats made by someone being treated for mental health issues to law enforcement.

House Speaker Cameron Sexton, R-Crossville, is pressing legislation directed at juveniles who commit violent crimes, creating "blended" sentences for some who would serve part of their sentence as juveniles and part as adults, with the latter being recorded on their record.

Covenant parents are supporting a Lamberth bill, HB 7007. It would designate as confidential the reports of county medical examiners and autopsy reports of minors who were victims of violent crimes if the minor's parent or legal guardian is not a suspect in the circumstances of the minor's death and the parent or legal guardian does not consent to the release. It also allows a judge to order the report's release "upon a showing of good cause.

Under current law, the medical exam and autopsy reports as well as toxicology reports are general public documents.

Public record advocates have expressed concerns over the proposed change.

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