Tennessee Gov. Lee to continue pressing bill to remove guns from people deemed by court to be threat

Staff Photo by Andy Sher / Gov. Bill Lee speaks with Tennessee Department of Transportation officials Thursday during a tour of a bridge construction site in Clarkrange, Tenn.

CLARKRANGE, TENN. — Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee said Thursday he still intends to present legislation to fellow Republicans to temporarily remove firearms from mentally ill people deemed by a judge to be a threat in spite of warnings a day earlier by House Speaker Cameron Sexton that a red flag law such as that cannot pass the GOP-dominated General Assembly.

The language for the bill is a framework, Lee said.

"I expect the General Assembly to look at it and determine if there are adjustments they want to make to that," the governor told reporters after touring a state Department of Transportation project in Fentress County.

"We'll actually probably be putting out some other proposals as well," added Lee, who said his proposal is not a red flag bill. "And we expect that members of the General Assembly will have a number of ideas that they'll bring forward over the next few months. And that's a good thing because that way, there'll be options for the bodies to choose what's the best way forward to keep Tennesseans safer."

The governor is seeking to remove weapons temporarily from people found to be a threat to themselves or others after a mental evaluation and a court proceeding before a judge. He said his proposal differs from other states' red flag laws in that it allows the person in question to appear with an attorney before the judge and argue against removal.

Lee's push for new restrictions comes in the wake of the March 27 mass shooting at a private Christian elementary school in Nashville in which three 9-year-olds and three adults died. The shooting resulted in mass protests at the state Capitol from students, parents and others.

The 28-year-old shooter, armed with two semi-automatic guns and a handgun, was killed in a confrontation with Metro Nashville police. Lee and his wife, a former school teacher, knew two of the adult victims. The shooter, a woman who had attended the school as a child, had been under treatment for mental issues, police have said.

Asked about Lee's proposal Wednesday, Sexton, R-Crossville, offered this to several state Capitol reporters: "Red flag — yeah that won't pass the House."

The legislation is opposed by the National Rifle Association, Tennessee Firearms Association and several other gun rights groups. They argue red flag laws violate a gun owner's right to due process by enabling a judge to order the removal of someone's firearm's without the gun owner's involvement.

Critics also argue red flag laws don't work. But proponents of such laws say the problem is the procedure isn't used often enough.

Lee argues his proposal adequately protects the gun owner's right to due process.

Asked about Lee's argument, Sexton told reporters Wednesday following a State Building Commission meeting that, "I understand.

"But," he quickly added, "you get to a point to where it looks like one, whether it is or not."

Sexton said most red flag laws are an order of protection that do not provide mental health services for people "on the backside," which he added is something House Republicans are looking at.

"So we're not going to pass a red flag law," Sexton said. "I think we have emergency and involuntary commitment right now in statute. And so we're working with law enforcement and others to see why is that not being used more effectively. What's the issues of something that we already have on the books? So we're going through that process."

Sexton said he does see need for lawmakers to come back in special session Aug. 21 as the governor plans.

"First and foremost to help the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation to maybe get a uniform court system that will allow us not to have 230,000 records that haven't been disposed of, not in the data base," Sexton said. "Twelve years of data of someone who may not be able to purchase a gun based on those criminal records.

"So," Sexton continued, "we need to come in and fix that and make sure that we provide the resources they need to get the most information in the data as quickly as possible and up to date so you don't have someone not eligible to buy a gun to actually continue to buy a gun."

Lt. Gov. Randy McNally, the Republican Senate speaker from Oak Ridge, has a more favorable view of Lee's proposal.

"I kind of like what the governor proposed the first time," McNally said, later adding, "it'll get a thorough vetting, I think, in the process."

Asked if he thought there were enough Senate votes to pass something of substance, McNally said, "I hope they are. I think there is a need to address the problems that are out there."

McNally acknowledged it could prove to be a tough sell.

"Yeah, it would be," he said. "But it's not impossible."

Earlier this year, Lee proposed and legislators approved a $230 million package to provide additional school security. Additional funding was added for both public and private schools following the deadly assault on The Covenant School.

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