Tennessee House, Senate Republicans at odds in special session over school shooting legislation

People hold signs as they leave the Senate chamber after a special session of the state legislature on public safety Thursday, Aug. 24, 2023, in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/George Walker IV)
People hold signs as they leave the Senate chamber after a special session of the state legislature on public safety Thursday, Aug. 24, 2023, in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/George Walker IV)

NASHVILLE — Tennessee's special legislative session on public safety, guns and mental health will stretch into next week as top leaders in the Republican-led Senate and House remained at loggerheads Thursday over what actions to take following the deadly March 27 private school shooting in Nashville that left six people dead, including three children.

Senate leaders had introduced a resolution to adjourn Thursday after previously passing three bills that were recommended earlier by Republican Gov. Bill Lee.

Lt. Gov. Randy McNally, the Republican Senate speaker from Oak Ridge, and other Republicans, including Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, have said additional actions could await the start of lawmakers' regular session in January.

But senators agreed Thursday to meet through at least Monday as House Republicans prepared to pass multiple bills on Thursday.

Asked by reporters to cite differences between the Senate and House, McNally told reporters, "We would be here for too long."

"There's not a deal with the House," McNally added. "Hopefully, they'll come to an agreement, pass some of the bills that we've suggested, pass the appropriations bill and whatever else is deemed essential."

House Speaker Cameron Sexton, R-Crossville, and other House GOP leaders want additional issues addressed now with a lengthy list that includes cracking down on violent juvenile criminals and pouring millions of dollars into mental health programs.

The lengthy list includes $30 million in public safety grants for higher education as well as public and private K-12 schools. Another House GOP plan calls for providing $20 million in student-loan forgiveness for health care providers who go into counseling, psychiatry and psychology. Another initiative calls for strengthening the mental health safety net for uninsured people in need, Sexton said.

"We're also looking at using $50 million in TennCare reserve funds to reimburse mental health facilities and providers," Sexton said during an impromptu House floor discussion with reporters. He called reimbursements "woefully low" and providers unable to meet their costs.

"When you talk to Republicans all across the state or independents or Democrats, we all agree we have a mental health crisis in our state," Sexton said. "And leaving here and not trying to help those situations get better is a terrible idea. At this point, the Senate's unwilling to even talk about those things."

He also touted his plan to create "blended" sentences for youths convicted of violent crimes, requiring they serve part of their sentence as juveniles and the rest in adult prisons after they turn 19.

As Sexton spoke in the largely vacant chamber, gun-control advocates in the House gallery took notice. Upset with Sexton and other Republicans' refusal to consider measures such as red flag laws to remove guns from people deemed by a judge to represent a threat, they chanted "resign Sexton" and "vote him out."

Taking a dig at the Senate for its unwillingness so far to consider his agenda, Sexton said, "They've got a chairman issue over there. And so we'll see. We're going to pass what we think we need to pass. If they don't think juvenile crime is important to decrease, maybe they won't pass it. That's on them."

Earlier in the week, Chair Gardenhire and other Republicans on the panel approved three of six bills recommended by Lee. Addressing juvenile crime was not among them.

One of the Lee proposals approved by Gardenhire's committee incentivizes but does not require safe storage of firearms by gun owners. The bill, among other things, lifts the sales tax on purchases on gun safes and storage devices while directing the Department of Safety to provide free firearm locks to Tennessee residents if they ask for one.

A second bill would codify Lee's executive order issued following The Covenant School shooting to require local courts to provide information more quickly to the Tennessee Instant Check System. The system performs background checks on prospective gun buyers.

The third bill deals with human trafficking, requiring the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation to submit a report on child and human trafficking crimes and trends in the state by Dec. 1, 2023, and each Dec. 1 thereafter.

Lee's special session call also opens up a state code section to allow lawmakers to consider enacting laws directed at keeping firearms out of the hands of people adjudicated by a court as dangerous or mentally ill.

The governor initially called for that after the shooting at The Covenant School, a private Christian elementary school in Nashville where the mass shooting occurred earlier this year. Republicans quickly adjourned their regular session and never took it up.

Lee then called for a special session, later holding meetings with more than 100 legislators as well as others. He found virtually no support among Republican lawmakers for his extreme risk protection order idea. But his special session call includes language allowing lawmakers to consider it. No Republican has. Democrats introduced at least one bill on the topic but it did not make it out of Gardenhire's committee and isn't expected to progress in the House either.

Covenant families, meanwhile, have mobilized, and parents — many of them mothers of students — have been a constant presence at the state Capitol during the special session.

On Thursday, a group of mothers held a news conference taking lawmakers to task for not pressing some of their proposed actions.

"It is obvious that the measures that have progressed in this session are not enough," Sarah Shoop Neumann told reporters. "The House has passed rules stifling debate and limiting the rights of parents and other concerned Tennesseans to express themselves, while the Senate stonewalled real progress as gun-industry lobbyists watched from the galleries while we fought to have a seat."

Shoop Neumann said she was glad subsidies and support for gun locks and awareness campaigns have gained support.

"But there is no mandate or even an incentive for gun owners to actually secure their weapons when they're not in use," she said, adding bills have been introduced. "The Senate needs to come back into session. There is real work to do."

Covenant parents are also pressing for a change in state law to block release of certain autopsy photos and reports and medical examiner files to news organizations and members of the public. Public record advocates have raised concerns.

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