Sen. Gardenhire: Keep emotions out of gun debate in Tennessee

Staff Photo by Ellen Gerst / Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, speaks to the Hamilton County Republican Party's Pachyderm Club on Monday.

State Sen. Todd Gardenhire wants to keep emotions out of the gun debate in Tennessee.

Ahead of a special legislative session on gun laws set for August, the Chattanooga Republican said he couldn't say whether he would support measures that would allow guns to be temporarily taken from people deemed dangerous by a judge, sometimes called red flag laws.

"I've said many times, even here today, that I'm not taking a personal stand on any subject matter," Gardenhire said Monday when approached by a reporter after a meeting of the Hamilton County Republican Party's Pachyderm Club.

(READ MORE: Sen. Bo Watson to keep 'open mind' for special session on Tennessee gun laws)

Gardenhire, who heads the Senate Judiciary Committee, said he decided to push all gun-related bills to next year after the March shooting at a Nashville school that killed six in an effort to keep emotions out of the conversation.

"I can't tell you the number of phone calls and emails that I got, saying 'you need to do the right thing,'" Gardenhire told the club Monday. "Doing the right thing is in the hands of the beholder."

He said Monday he believes none of the gun bills proposed during the session could have stopped shooter Audrey Hale.

"Until we see the specifics of what the governor's going to present to us, whether it has anything to do with guns, whether it has anything to do with mental health, penalties, we just don't know," he told reporters after Monday's meeting. "He has not told us. He's given us some parameters, but nothing in detail."

(READ MORE: Tennessee Democratic lawmaker's effort to bring 'red flag' protective order bill on guns fails)

In the final days of the session, Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee introduced a proposal that would have allowed law enforcement to request the temporary removal of guns from a person if a judge found them to be dangerous to themselves or others.

The proposal never made it into a bill. Gardenhire said because it didn't go through the process of being heard and discussed by lawmakers, he said he couldn't comment on the potential effect it could have on gun violence.

"It was hastily put together, and good intentions — but hastily put together," he said of Lee's proposal.

The senator said he thinks the governor was too quick to call the special session after the shooting at the private Christian elementary school, which left two friends of Lee's family dead.

Lee called for the session hours after lawmakers ended the regular legislative session in April, nearly a month after the shooting.

"In my opinion, I think he was wrong to do it when he did it," Gardenhire said at Monday's meeting. "It was an emotional thing, very emotional. They have personal friends involved in that that died, and he's the governor."

He said he declined Lee's invitation to join a group working on legislation to be proposed during the session. He said he plans to prepare for the session by traveling the state talking to law enforcement agencies, judges, public defenders and others about possible solutions.

(READ MORE: Vanderbilt Poll: Tennesseans support 'red flag' gun laws in name of school safety)

"This is going to be a full employment opportunity for lobbyists in Nashville because everyone's hiring one to lobby for their position," Gardenhire said. "I'm not meeting with any of those types of groups at all. I'm keeping everything as neutral as I possibly can."

Gardenhire said he also plans to hold a series of public hearings in Nashville in late June or July where Tennesseans can come discuss possible gun laws.

"If there's 10 groups that want to speak on one side, and five on the other side, I'll cut it down to make it five to five," Gardenhire said. "To be fair, we'll give everybody the same amount of time."

Last week, Gardenhire joined a lawsuit with Nashville newspaper The Tennessean, demanding the release of Hale's writings and psychological information, including medications and diagnoses, from Nashville police.

He said other lawsuits, like one filed by the Tennessee Firearms Association and former Hamilton County Sheriff Jim Hammond, are asking for too much information. The release of body camera footage, security information and "pictures of the dead children," Gardenhire said, would sensationalize the issue.

(READ MORE: Former Hamilton County sheriff, Tennessee gun group sue Nashville police for shooter manifesto)

"We don't want gore, we don't want sensationalism," he said. "We want to figure out what caused Audrey Hale to do what she did."

Gardenhire said Monday that the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation would allow him to see Hale's writings and other records being used in the shooting investigation because of his position as a senator and chairman of the Judiciary Committee. He has so far refused to do that, he said, because he would not be allowed to share what he saw with anyone else.

Contact Ellen Gerst at or 423-757-6319.

  photo  Staff Photo by Robin Rudd / Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, answers a question from the Chattanooga Times Free Press at the newspaper's offices on November 15, 2019.