Tennessee legislature’s special session ends with many unhappy for many reasons

House Speaker Cameron Sexton, R-Crossville, center, pushes past Rep. Justin J. Pearson, D-Memphis, left, and Rep. Justin Jones, D- Nashville after a special session of the state legislature on public safety Tuesday, Aug. 29, 2023, in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/George Walker IV)
House Speaker Cameron Sexton, R-Crossville, center, pushes past Rep. Justin J. Pearson, D-Memphis, left, and Rep. Justin Jones, D- Nashville after a special session of the state legislature on public safety Tuesday, Aug. 29, 2023, in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/George Walker IV)

NASHVILLE — Tennessee's special legislative session on public safety, called by Gov. Bill Lee after a deadly Nashville private school shooting in March, came to a chaotic close Tuesday, with Republican supermajorities in both the Senate and House continuing to forgo any new gun restrictions.

And it generated yet another tense encounter between House Republicans and Democrats.

In the end, lawmakers passed three bills, all of which had been recommended by Lee. Also approved was a funding measure totaling about $81 million. It will provide $50 million in grants to licensed community mental health agencies to provide services and $30 million for safety improvements on college campuses.

One of the bills will codify Lee's executive order following the shooting at The Covenant School on March 27 to streamline the state's background check system. Three 9-year-old third graders and three adults died in the attack by a 28-year-old former Covenant student armed with semi-automatic weapons.

Another bill would provide free gun locks from the state to Tennesseans upon request, and another requires the Tennessee Department of Investigation to create a human trafficking report.

A fourth bill, required to fund the other three, was also passed.

Senate Republicans stuck to a position first staked out by Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, Senate Finance Committee Chair Bo Watson, R-Hixson, and four other committee chairs last week that other actions could wait until lawmakers come back for their regular session in January.

They focused on Lee's slender legislative package.

The Senate agreed to appropriate and the House accepted $81 million for school safety upgrades, mental health and a $1.1 million public awareness campaign for safe gun storage.

"I believe it was a success," Lt. Gov. Randy McNally, the Republican Senate speaker from Oak Ridge, told reporters at a news conference. "I think there's a lot in there that's beneficial to the safety of the students and the people in Tennessee."

When lawmakers' regular session begins in January, lawmakers will have more time to flesh out some of these issues, McNally said.

"Some of these things take time," Watson said. "We will be back in January. These issues will be before us again, and we'll be able to devote more time to them."

'This is not OK'

Gun-safety proponents fumed.

"Excuse me, no, we can't leave here," one woman in the audience shouted from the gallery just before senators adjourned. "More children will die ... This is not OK. We sent you to do a job. This is b-------."

A sobbing Sarah Shoop Neumann, whose child attends Covenant, was in disbelief no action was taken on issues pressed by the parents.

"Bodies, kids, massacred by high-capacity automatic rifles, do you know what that does to a child's body?" Shoop Neumann said. "Because the 9-year-olds know what it does to a child's body."

Covenant parents, several of whom noted they are gun owners, were focused on school safety, mental health, gun control and a measure to prevent autopsy photos and graphic details of minors who are killed from being publicly released.

"We passed nothing of consequence that's going to change public safety policy much less improve public safety for actual Tennesseans," Sen. Jeff Yarbro, D-Nashville, told the Chattanooga Times Free Press. "The biggest consequence from this whole session is the embarrassment of the General Assembly through offensive measures used to keep people out of the building and silence members."

Lee held a news conference.

"My perspective was to do just what we did, which was to have (a special session)," he said. "The goal of the special session was public safety, from the very beginning. There are a lot of disagreements about the way forward with that, but it's really important that in spite of the disagreements that we find the things can agree on, so we can make progress."

The governor, who knew two of the adults killed in the shooting, was asked what he said to Covenant parents.

"My message to them, and I have communicated this with them, it's good when we make progress of any kind," he said. "And we have made progress, and we will continue to make progress, and their engagement has made a difference and will make a difference going forward."

House Majority Leader William Lamberth, R-Portland, said he had carried the bill to prevent the public release of autopsy information of children killed by violence.

"I'm very disappointed that we didn't get more done in this special session," Lamberth said. "In the House, we had a lot of bills that got left on the table that I hope will still be taken back up in January to help families in Tennessee be safer."

A ruckus

Despite policy differences between Republicans and Democrats in the Senate, the situation continued to be tense in the House, where Speaker Cameron Sexton, R-Crossville, and fellow Republicans have pushed through new restrictions on seating and have sought to ban small signs being carried — the latter rule resulting in a temporary restraining order issued by a Nashville judge blocking its enforcement.

On Tuesday, almost immediately after the House adjourned, Sexton and Rep. Justin Pearson, D-Memphis, appeared to have a brief physical interaction. Video by reporters and others indicated Sexton making his way out of the House chamber as Pearson approached the speaker's dais holding a sign calling for gun control.

One video appeared to show a member of the Sexton's security team pressing the speaker, which appeared to have caused him to brush up against Pearson, resulting in a ruckus among Republican and Democratic members as well as people in the galleries.

Sexton continued on.

Pearson was expelled from office by the Republican supermajority earlier this year along with Rep. Justin Jones, D-Nashville, after an impromptu gun protest in the House well following the Covenant shooting. It made national news and as well as making both young men political celebrities. Both were later re-appointed to their districts and earlier this month re-elected by district voters. Both continue to criticize Sexton.

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

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