Tennessee House speaker, Senate majority leader pan Gov. Lee’s ‘order of protection’ gun removal proposal

Staff Photo by Robin Rudd / Tennessee House Speaker Cameron Sexton is pictured during an appearance in Chattanooga in 2022. Sexton said last week he doesn't believe Gov. Bill Lee's order-of-protection proposal will make it out of committee in a planned special session of the General Assembly later this month.

NASHVILLE — Two top Tennessee Republican House and Senate leaders said Gov. Bill Lee doesn't have support in the GOP-dominated General Assembly to pass his proposed "order of protection" bill to keep firearms from potentially dangerous people.

"I don't perceive that happening," House Speaker Cameron Sexton, R-Crossville, said in a phone interview last week. "I don't see that coming out of committee."

Ditto for Senate Majority Leader Jack Johnson, R-Franklin.

"I will not be filing that bill if the governor chooses to have it introduced," Johnson said last week by phone. "I do not support the governor's proposed order of protection bill, and while it is customary for me as leader to sponsor the governor's legislative package, that's a bill I do not support and will not be sponsoring."

Lee has said he is calling a special session on the order-of-protection measure as well as other changes to state law in response to the deadly March 27 shooting at The Covenant School, a private Christian elementary school in Nashville.

The bill would establish a legal process where a family member, loved one or someone else can seek a judge's order to remove a weapon from a person.

Lee has said it's not a red flag law, opposed by Second Amendment advocates, but critics have said it is. Lee intends to call the special session for Aug. 21.

The Covenant School gun attack killed three 9-year-old children and three adults. Police said it was carried out by a 28-year-old, heavily armed former student who once attended school there.

The shooter, Audrey Hale, was killed by responding police. Hale had been under a doctor's care, Nashville police have said. Hale's journals and other writings are the subject of lawsuits by those who believe release of the material would increase understanding going into the special session.

Republican lawmakers are eyeing virtually every alternative they can find in response to Lee's emergency order-of-protection idea, zeroing in on mental health issues and hospitalization among other issues.

Johnson said while the Republican governor has said both privately and publicly he intends to have the measure introduced, the majority leader doesn't believe it has any chance of passing.

"And that's been communicated to the governor, so it would be perplexing for the governor to introduce a bill that has no chance of passage," Johnson said. "But he has every right, if he can find a sponsor."

Asked if a Republican senator might introduce the bill if he won't, Johnson said, "Members aren't typically prone to sponsor bills that have no chance of passing."

Lt. Gov. Randy McNally, the Republican Senate speaker from Oak Ridge, has voiced support for Lee's proposal, but many GOP senators as well as House Republicans have gone on record against it.

Lee has been holding closed-door meetings with groups of legislators and interested groups.

"I'm really encouraged by the efforts of General Assembly members that are bringing ideas forward to make sure that this is a very productive session that leaves Tennessee safer," Lee told reporters Friday.

The governor wouldn't say if he had the votes necessary to win approval for his order of protection proposal.

"You know, whenever you bring a piece of legislation, you certainly hope that it does (pass)," Lee said. "But that's up to the General Assembly."

Republicans control supermajorities in both chambers and have enacted any number of pro-gun bills since taking control of the House and Senate in 2011, among them a 2021 permitless handgun-carry law.

Democrats have been more supportive of the order of protection idea.

"I think we need to consider everything and anything that could help protect our children in communities across the state," House Democratic Caucus chair John Ray Clemmons of Nashville said by phone last week. "I don't think anything should be off the table. But we should not avoid the biggest cause of gun violence, which is the guns."

On Monday, Clemmons and other Democrats announced at a news conference they will have a statewide bus tour leading up to the special session.

Rep. Yusuf Hakeem, D-Chattanooga, said he hopes something meaningful can emerge that goes beyond many legislative Republicans' current focus on mental health, adding that while important, he believes orders of protection and other actions are needed.

"I question if it gets to the root of the problem in regards to the proliferation of weapons with no guidelines or controls to our citizens," Hakeem said by phone last week. "I think it's important for us to look at putting some guidelines with regard to who can have a gun and under what conditions."

Nineteen states and the District of Columbia have enacted extreme risk protection order provisions. They allow family members, loved ones or law enforcement to intervene by petitioning a court for an order to temporarily prevent someone in crisis from accessing or having guns.

Sexton and others are eyeing alternatives.

The speaker said by phone last week his understanding is the Covenant shooter made "general threats." He said law enforcement officials have told him that making a general threat or mass threat is not a crime. And law enforcement is asking for tools to deal with someone who does, giving them the ability to investigate, issue subpoenas, charge them and put them under mental health examination.

State law says emergency commitments are restricted by law to an immediate threat, Sexton said. So there has been discussion by Republicans of changing the statute to allow emergency involuntary commitment for someone considered an imminent threat to society.

Sexton said it appears others are more or less coming around to that idea, which would be coupled with an existing emergency and involuntary commitment statute that involves a judicial process.

Republicans are also discussing building new mental health facilities. Sexton agrees the state needs to add to the existing 477 mental health beds and believes the state should look at using existing property at the Western Mental Health Institute in Bolivar. Since the state owns the land, it would save money, he said.

Tennessee Firearms Association Executive Director John Harris, an attorney, said by phone that Tennessee already has a system for emergency involuntary committals under which medical professionals and counselors can sign affidavits saying someone is at immediate risk of self-harm or harm to others. They can be detained in a mental health facility for two weeks, he said.

With sufficient funding and proper police training, Harris said, his concerns would largely be allayed.

"It makes no sense if you think about it that Lee only wants to take the access to the weapon away as opposed to access to the victims away," Harris added, noting a person in crisis could buy a gun on the street, use a knife, vehicle or other means to harm or kill others. "It seems quite clear that a more sensible solution that would save lives or avert harm is to remove the dangerous person from their potential victims," Harris said.

Dylan Kussman, local group lead for Chattanooga Moms Demand Action, said by phone last week local group members are going to be in Nashville "every step of the way" during the special session to advocate for an extreme risk protection order law.

"That is what we're hoping for, and we understand the political climate of the state," Kussman said, noting other states, including Florida, have been able to pass such laws.

But Kussman said group members don't think Lee's current language is strong.

"His language would require a court holding a hearing after the petition is filed," Kussman said. "And ultimately, a judge would need to decide that that person poses substantial harm. So a three-to-five-day waiting period could be the difference between life and death. ... We're hoping for the passage of an extreme risk law that would have prevented it."

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