NASHVILLE — A Democratic lawmaker Thursday questioned a move by Senate Judiciary Chairman Todd Gardenhire to halt further consideration of all gun bills this year, saying it impacts his bill to require gun owners to secure their firearms and ammunition safely in vehicles and boats.
The measure is backed by Chattanooga Mayor Tim Kelly, who presides over a city with one of the nation's highest gun-theft rates.
Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, who along with other committee members is already at odds with some fellow Republicans over a separate bill that has been amended to exclude long guns, including semi-automatic rifles, from a permitless carry measure, said he made the decision Wednesday to halt further consideration of all gun bills, regardless of party.
That came following Monday's attack at The Covenant School in Nashville, a private, Christian school, in which three children and three staffers, including the head of the school, were killed.
On Thursday, hundreds of students and adults came to the Capitol demanding lawmakers to act on bills they say can help address gun violence.
Rep. Caleb Hemmer, D-Nashville, the sponsor of House Bill 1233, said his bill is intended to promote firearm safety.
"I'm very concerned at the news that Sen. Gardenhire does not want to hear any gun bills, including the safe storage bill, next week," Hemmer said in an interview in the House chamber. "It's going to be heard in the House, so I'm very concerned why they would not have this discussion, especially being that Chattanooga is the No. 2 city in the entire country for having guns being stolen out of cars. Especially in light of the mayor coming out in support of the legislation."
Sen. Jeff Yarbro, D-Nashville, is sponsoring the Senate companion bill.
The bill revises and builds upon existing law. State law currently authorizes a person to transport and store a firearm or firearm ammunition in the person's motor vehicle while on or utilizing any public or private parking area, if the following conditions are met: the firearm or ammunition is kept from "ordinary observation" and locked within the trunk, glove box or interior of the person's motor vehicle or a container "securely affixed" to the motor vehicle if the person is not in the motor vehicle, according to the legislative description of existing law.
Hemmer and Yarbro's bill removes the reference to the interior of the car, the effect being that the firearm or ammunition is kept from ordinary observation and locked within the trunk, utility or glove box or a locked container securely affixed to the motor vehicle, if the person is not inside.
It also adds boats to motor vehicles.
And the legislation would also now require the owner to report the loss or theft of the firearm to a law enforcement agency within 24 hours of the discovery of the loss or theft.
The bill makes violations a misdemeanor, punishable by the completion of a court-approved firearm safety course. It prohibits a court from imposing a fine or incarceration for a violation of either provision.
Kelly said in a statement to the Chattanooga Times Free Press that law enforcement leaders across the state have said the measure is a "common sense solution" that gives local police officers more tools to fight crime and "get ahead" of gun violence.
"This is about responsible gun ownership," Kelly said. "As a gun owner myself, I don't find this law burdensome or unreasonable, and I think this is something Tennesseans of all political perspectives can get behind. There are notably no penalties for violation other than education, which will help ensure firearms stay out of the hands of criminals or a curious child.
"I'm focused on keeping our residents safe within the confines of my authority as mayor, but I am hopeful Sen. Gardenhire is able to give this legislation a fair review and hearing as quickly as possible -- whether it be this session or next," Kelly added.
Chattanooga gun thefts from vehicles rose by 24% from 2019 to 2020, according to federal data released by Kelly and the mayors of Metro Nashville, Knoxville and Shelby County, who are also supporting the legislation, citing their own problems with gun thefts.
Kelly's involvement comes after high-profile shootings in Chattanooga last year, including one on McCallie Avenue resulting in three deaths, two of them by gunshot, and 14 people wounded or otherwise injured.
Gardenhire said by phone late Thursday afternoon he still plans to move remaining gun bills over until 2024. Earlier this week, the senator had said he was looking at moving them to next week.
"The reason is, there's nothing we have that would have prevented this shooting. There was no bill that would have prohibited this shooting that we have or will have. So it would not have made a difference in Monday's tragedy.
Earlier Thursday, children and parents rallied at the Capitol in support of stricter gun laws, chanting "save our kids" and "not on our watch."
Rep. Bob Freeman, a Nashville Democrat who represents Green Hills, where The Covenant School is located, stood with fellow Nashville lawmakers in the well of the House.
"What's the right way to help a child grieve the loss of a friend and the loss of innocence?" Freeman asked colleagues, describing how he tried to explain to his daughter who was seeking answers to why one of her friends, a Covenant School student, had died.
"Our teachers and neighbors were killed by a weapon of war by someone who should have been red-flagged," Freeman said.
A red flag law is a gun violence prevention law that permits a state court to order the temporary removal of firearms from a person who the court believes may present a danger to others or themselves. Efforts to pass such legislation in Tennessee have failed.
The House floor descended later into chaos during a brief recess as several Democratic representatives went to the chamber's well with a bullhorn and led chants of "gun control now." Order was soon restored. Republican leaders were furious.
Emotions have been running high all week with Senate Democratic Caucus Chairwoman London Lamar of Memphis charging earlier in the week that the "blood of these children are on my colleagues' hands."
Speakers weigh in
Republican lawmakers in recent years have pressed any number of measures easing gun restrictions, saying they interfere with Second Amendment rights.
"Even if we had the most restrictive ban on weapons, when you have someone who is willing to die and kill other people you cannot stop them -- unless you can determine very quickly what they're going to do," House Speaker Cameron Sexton, R-Crossville, told reporters.
Asked about a pending school safety bill that deals with public schools, House Majority Leader William Lamberth, R-Portland, said lawmakers in the past have focused on public schools and public facilities in terms of providing school resource officers and other help.
"But we absolutely have to focus on all schools now, whether they're public or private, wherever a child in Tennessee is attending school," Lamberth said.
Lt. Gov. Randy McNally, the Republican Senate speaker from Oak Ridge, earlier told reporters he has discussed with Republican Gov. Bill Lee actions the state can take. The list includes expenditures for school resource officers for private schools, secure windows and glass in school buildings to make them bullet resistant, magnetic locks on doors to prevent entry by shooters, centralized and modernized camera systems, ensuring schools have drills and more.
He said funding would be either in Lee's already planned budget revisions or another budget amendment.
Asked about a red flag law, McNally said there should be a focus on mental health issues.
"In my opinion, I think states like Florida that have red flag laws, I think that's something, there might be some disagreement, but that's something I would support provided it gives adequate protection" against "false reporting," McNally said.