NASHVILLE — As he works to persuade fellow Republicans who rule the Tennessee legislature to approve new safeguards against gun violence after a March 27 deadly school shooting, Gov. Bill Lee has signed into law a measure providing additional protections from lawsuits filed against firearms and ammunition dealers, sellers and manufacturers.
Legislative records show the Republican governor signed the bill Thursday. It takes effect July 1.
Senate Republicans gave final approval to House Bill 1189 on April 18, less than a month after the shooting at The Covenant School in Nashville that left three 9-year-old children and three adults dead. The House approved the measure three weeks before the shooting, on March 6.
Lee also plans to call lawmakers back into special session on Aug. 21 to address safety concerns.
"It gives a mixed message to the general public, and to afford the firearms manufacturers' additional liability protections is really unconscionable," Rep. Yusuf Hakeem, D-Chattanooga, said Thursday by phone regarding Lee's signing of the measure into law. "And it goes against everything else he's trying to do with regard to the special session and public safety and things of that nature."
The governor is hoping to persuade GOP supermajorities in both chambers to approve a temporary order of protection measure aimed at keeping firearms from people deemed by a judge to be dangerous to others or themselves. Second Amendment advocates charge it's a red flag law, which a number of states have adopted.
But Lee argues his legislation will provide protections to gun owners. He says it allows them to make a case before a judge that their weapons should not be removed. That, Lee said, is a substantive difference from laws in some other states.
House Democratic Caucus Chairman John Ray Clemmons of Nashville called Lee's signing of the measure "disappointing" in a phone interview. He noted the House Republican supermajority passed the bill prior to the school shooting. But senators approved it weeks afterwards, he added.
"If you look at the GOP supermajority, I find it very concerning that our legislature found time to pass that kind of legislation but couldn't consider any kind of legislation to better protect our children," Clemmons said.
During the Senate debate April 6, bill sponsor Sen. Joey Hensley, R-Hohenwald, defended the bill.
"This is just to try to help businesses in this state that have chosen to come here, to give them a little civil liability (protection)," he said.
With its firearms-friendly policies, warm business climate and generous taxpayer-funded economic incentives, Tennessee has become home to an increasing number of firearms and ammunition manufacturers with some moving their home office operations to the state.
Hensley said his bill is intended to keep that going and argued the legislation won't block lawmakers from passing new laws in response to The Covenant School shooting, which Lee hopes will occur.
Hensley's legislation doesn't provide blanket protection against lawsuits. There are six exceptions leaving gun and ammunition dealers, other sellers and manufacturers liable. The list includes a person or company directly involved in the crime giving rise to the action or steps taken against a seller for negligent entrustment or negligence.
The state also has no power over existing federal laws dealing with the firearms industry.
Last month, Sen. Jeff Yarbro, D-Nashville, objected to the bill's passage in the upper chamber debate.
"There are people that we should be going out of our way to protect this week," Yarbro said, alluding to protests that erupted at the Capitol in the wake of the shooting. "And we've been receiving emails and calls. People are holding up signs, telling us to go out of our way to help those people. Not one of those signs says to protect the gun manufacturers."
Last week, the governor signed into law his $230 million measure, approved by lawmakers, that he brought to boost public and private security in the wake of the shooting.