Tennessee Gov. Lee says 'order of protection' proposal on guns is the ‘right thing’ to do

Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee addresses attendees at his ceremonial signing of a permitless handgun-carry law during a June 2, 2021, event at the Beretta USA gun manfacturing plant in Gallatin, Tenn. (Staff Photo by Andy Sher).

NASHVILLE — Gov. Bill Lee said Thursday he believes his emergency "order of protection" proposal to create a legal avenue to temporarily remove firearms from people deemed by a judge as a threat to others or themselves is the "right thing" to do.

"I have an obligation and a responsibility to do what I think is the right thing for Tennesseans," the Republican governor told reporters. "I think this is the right thing for Tennesseans."

Lee proposed the legislation in the waning days of this year's legislative session following the March 27 shooting deaths of three children and three adults at The Covenant School, a private Christian elementary school in Nashville, by a former student who had mental issues.

A number of the governor's fellow Republicans balked, saying there wasn't time to consider the issue in their regular session. But there is also a wide philosophical gulf. In a deal with top GOP leaders, Lee agreed to issue a call for a special session. He announced Monday he will call a special session on the issue to begin Aug. 21.

The governor's comments Thursday came following his speech and subsequent question-and-answer session at Lipscomb University in Nashville, where he spoke at a business breakfast.

Lee's proposal has drawn criticism from the National Rifle Association as well as the Tennessee Firearms Association, who have denounced it as a red flag law — a term Lee has avoided using.

The governor argues provisions in laws enacted by a number of other states allow a judge to order the removal of firearms from someone in an "ex parte" hearing where the gun owner is not present and cannot make his or her case.

Lee says his order of protection proposal is different because it allows the gun owner to be present and argue against removal.

"I've put forward what I think is the framework for what will protect the citizens and protect Second Amendment rights. But there's a lot of conversation we're going to have between now and then," the governor told reporters. "What those things are, as I said, ultimately will be a decision for the General Assembly, but we're going to provide as much information for the General Assembly" as possible.

Lee and his wife, Maria, a former teacher, were personal friends of Covenant's head of school, who was among those killed by a 28-year-old former Covenant student.

Gun-rights groups and a number of Republicans have seized upon comments made by Nashville's police chief, who said the shooter, Audrey Hale, had written a "manifesto." Police have said Hale used he/him pronouns.

Nashville authorities have refused to release the manifesto, prompting two lawsuits — with former Hamilton County Sheriff Jim Hammond serving as one of the lead plaintiffs in one of the suits.

"I think it's important that we have these conversations," Lee said. "I think it's important that we work really hard to find a way to improve on the current status quo in our state with regard to folks with a mental health crisis and how we deal with them."

He said there are a "lot of ways that we can improve" the bill. "But it is a very important conversation that I think Tennesseans want us to have and I felt an obligation to make sure we had it."

Lee was asked if he was willing to work with minority Democrats in the Republican-dominated legislature.

"What I want to do is just bring together the General Assembly in agreement for something that will protect Tennesseans," he said. "I can't predict what that will look like. But I will be working really hard to make sure we have Republicans, Democrats, lawmakers, the public — everyone has an opportunity to weigh in on it. And we'll end up with a solution that's good for Tennessee."

On Wednesday, Lee signed into law his $230 million plan to boost public and private school security. Among other things, it would provide a trained school resource officer in every public school in Tennessee as well as funding for 122 Homeland Security agents to serve both public and private schools. Other provisions include boosting public and private schools' physical security.

Following the shooting, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, in late April moved most remaining gun-related measures — both bills to expand gun carry and others to restrict it or require other measures such as ensuring gun owners locked their weapons securely — to the 2024 session.

"Bad investments are made when everybody's in a panic or hysteria," Gardenhire later told the Chattanooga Times Free Press. "And the quote is, 'When the ducks are quacking, feeds the ducks.' This has been a horrific tragedy where everybody is all of a sudden demanding we do something. And that is the wrong time to draft policy, is when you do something through emotions."

The senator also joined recently with other Republicans in demanding the writings of the shooter.

Following the shooting, large crowds of children, older students, parents and others flooded the state Capitol to demand action on firearms. Republicans expelled two freshmen Black lawmakers after they conducted an impromptu floor protest over Tennessee gun laws with a bullhorn, leading the crowds in the galleries in gun-control chants.

A third lawmaker, a white woman supportive of the protest, narrowly escaped expulsion, bringing nationwide criticism of the Republicans who ousted the two.

The two lawmakers who were expelled later were re-appointed to their seats by the Metro Nashville Council and Shelby County Commission.

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