Tennessee Gov. Lee sets date for special legislative session focusing on gun policy, public safety

Gov. Bill Lee calls for a question during a news conference Monday, April 3, 2023, in Nashville, Tenn. Lee held a news conference with state legislative leaders to talk about proposed legislation to address gun violence in schools. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

NASHVILLE — Gov. Bill Lee on Monday announced a date of Aug. 21 for his planned special legislative session to address public safety and gun policy following a deadly mass shooting at a Nashville private elementary school.

The date will be nearly six months after the March 27 shooting at The Convent School in Nashville. Three children and three adults died in the attack Nashville police have said was carried out by a 28-year-old former student with semi-automatic weapons and a history of mental health issues.

Lee's fellow Republicans in the GOP-run legislature balked at acting on the governor's proposed legislation brought in the waning hours of the General Assembly's regular session, suggesting Lee come back later in a special session devoted entirely to firearms and safety issues.

"After speaking with members of the General Assembly, I am calling for a special session on Aug. 21 to continue our important discussion about solutions to keep Tennessee communities safe and preserve the constitutional rights of law-abiding citizens," Lee said in his news release.

"There is broad agreement that action is needed, and in the weeks ahead, we'll continue to listen to Tennesseans and pursue thoughtful, practical measures that strengthen the safety of Tennesseans, preserve Second Amendment rights, prioritize due process protections, support law enforcement and address mental health," the governor said.

Some two weeks after the shooting, Lee called for the Republican legislative supermajority to pass legislation aimed at preventing guns from getting into the hands of people who are a danger to themselves or others. He also signed an executive order aimed at strengthening background checks on firearm purchases.

"I'm asking the General Assembly to bring forward an order of protection law," Lee told reporters last month, arguing it was not a "red flag" law that is opposed by most of his fellow Republicans. "A new, strong order of protection law will provide the broader population cover, safety, from those who are a danger to themselves or the population. This is our moment to lead and to give the people of Tennessee what they deserve."

He said his legislation would provide through a judicial process the ability to keep guns from people who present a danger to themselves or others. It would also allow such people to be present in court and object, the governor has previously said.

Lt. Gov. Randy McNally, the Republican Senate speaker from Oak Ridge, told reporters last month as lawmakers' annual session ended that he didn't think the governor's proposal was a non-starter.

"I think that we'll have to examine it and have it go through the requisite committees in both the Senate and the House," McNally said.

Doug Kufner, a spokesman for House Speaker Cameron Sexton, R-Crossville, said the speaker is traveling the state this summer and fall to assist members and meet with Tennesseans on a wide array of issues and policies.

"He is looking forward to those discussions as we all await Gov. Lee's proposed legislative package for the announced special session," Kufner said.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, said in a phone interview he wants to see the wording in Lee's official call to session.

"Until I see the actual wording of the call, I'm supposed to be as neutral as possible to guide whatever discussion comes out in a fair and even way," the chairman said.

Senate Minority Leader Raumesh Akbari, D-Memphis, expressed some hope for the session.

"I am hoping my colleagues will support a package of bills that ACTUALLY get at the heart of gun violence," Akbari said on social media.

Earlier on Monday, Lee invited Tennesseans to weigh in and comment online at bit.ly/TennSpeaks.

The March 27 shooting drew national attention and weeks of protests at the Capitol over Tennessee gun policies. It also impacted Lee and his wife, Maria Lee, with the head of The Covenant School a personal friend of Mrs. Lee.

House Republicans later put themselves in the national limelight by expelling two young Black House freshmen who, following the shooting, conducted an impromptu gun protest on the chamber floor and led hundreds of children, older students, parents and other adults in chants for new gun-control laws.

Reps. Justin Jones, D-Nashville, and Justin Pearson, D-Memphis, were later reappointed to their seats by the Metro Nashville Council and Shelby County Commission, respectively. Rep. Gloria Johnson, D-Knoxville, joined the floor protest but did not use a bullhorn to exhort gallery attendees to chant gun-control slogans and thereby escaped expulsion by one vote.

All three lawmakers, who became known as the Tennessee Three, later met with President Joe Biden at the White House, where the president praised them. The trio received a hero's welcome from visitors outside the chamber and in the chamber balcony when they came back to the House.

Following weeks of protests at the Capitol with demonstrators calling for gun reform, lawmakers adjourned their annual session in April without voting on any major proposals to restrict access to firearms for those considered a danger to themselves or others.

Lee said as they adjourned that he would call them back into session later in the year.

The Tennessee Firearms Association has criticized Lee's order of protection proposal, saying it amounts to a "red flag" law.

A recent survey by Vanderbilt University found three-quarters of the 1,003 registered voters they surveyed on the issue said they back strong gun protections.

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