Sen. Bo Watson to keep ‘open mind’ for special session on Tennessee gun laws

Staff Photo by Robin Rudd / Sen. Bo Watson, R-Hixson, speaks about the Tennessee legislatures upcoming special session and the state budget at the Friends of Hixson meeting at Clear Creek Church of Christ on Wednesday.

Tennessee state Sen. Bo Watson, R-Hixson, said he'll keep an open mind about potential gun laws ahead of a special legislative session on public safety set for August, but that he does not support red flag laws.

"The legislature has rejected that over and over and over again," Watson said following a Friends of Hixson meeting Wednesday. "So it's got to be something outside of that space."

In the final weeks of Tennessee's legislative session, lawmakers rejected a proposal from Gov. Bill Lee that would have allowed judges to order the temporary removal of guns from people deemed dangerous to themselves or others and to prevent them from buying a new firearm during that time.

In other states, similar measures have been called red flag laws since they allow courts to raise a warning flag before a crime is potentially committed.

(READ MORE: Tennessee Gov. Lee: Special session chance to work together on gun reform)

Watson said he will wait to see new proposals Lee brings to the special session, set to begin Aug. 21, before judging whether the measures could be classified as red flag laws. He said he is not involved in a group of lawmakers now working with the governor on those proposals.

"The governor asked the legislature to keep an open mind, and I'm trying to respect our governor's wishes," Watson said at Wednesday's meeting.

As gun rights groups have loudly opposed red flag laws around the country, Lee has instead branded his proposal as an "extreme risk protection order" law. The governor has also said his proposal, unlike other states' red flag laws, allows the person to appear in court to make a case against their guns being removed.

A poll of nearly 900 Tennessee voters conducted by Embold Research between April 10 and 12 found 70% supported red flag measures.

(READ MORE: Poll finds most Tennessee voters support gun reforms)

Watson also said he hopes lawmakers and the public will be allowed to read the manifesto left by Audrey Hale, the shooter who killed six people at Nashville's Covenant School in March.

"I think that it's an important piece of information that legislators will want to see as we move into a presumed special session," Watson told Hixson residents Wednesday.

Former Hamilton County Sheriff Jim Hammond and the Tennessee Firearms Association also asked for the manifesto's release in a lawsuit against Nashville city government and police filed earlier this month.

At Wednesday's meeting, Watson gave Hixson residents highlights from the coming year's state budget, including more than $230 million for enhanced school safety. That includes $30 million to place Tennessee Department of Safety & Homeland Security officers in schools, $140 million to place law enforcement resource officers in all public schools, $54 million total for security upgrades to public and private schools and $8 million for behavioral health.

(READ MORE: Gov. Lee signs $230 million bill bolstering school security after Nashville shooting)

"Here's a thought for you to ponder: 9/11 changed how America looks at a lot of safety issues," he said while answering questions Wednesday. "And things that are happening in all the states across this country, in schools and other places, are changing how we have to look at those places."

He said school safety was one of lawmakers' top priorities going into the special legislative session, even before the Nashville shooting brought more attention to the issue.

"We came in to session with the expectation that we were going to make a sizable investment in school safety," Watson said. "That was not a reaction to things that happened in Nashville. We were already thinking about that and had been for a couple of years."

Contact Ellen Gerst at or 423-757-6319.