Tennessee GOP lawmakers cautious on Trump proposals to address mass shootings

Tennessee GOP lawmakers cautious on Trump proposals to address mass shootings

February 23rd, 2018 by Andy Sher in Local Regional News

Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi, center, and Attorney General Jeff Sessions, right, look on as President Donald Trump speaks during a meeting with state and local officials to discuss school safety, in the Roosevelt Room of the White House, Thursday, Feb. 22, 2018, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

Photo by Associated Press /Times Free Press.

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NASHVILLE — President Donald Trump's endorsement of raising the minimum age to purchase semi-automatic rifles, ban "bump stocks" and boost gun background checks drew generally cautious support Thursday from some Tennessee Republican leaders, while others appeared to be largely counting on Washington to take the lead.

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Senator Randy McNally, R-Oak Ridge, center, is sworn in as Senate Speaker by former Tennessee Supreme Court Justice William Koch Tuesday, Jan. 10, 2017, in Nashville, Tenn. McNally succeeds Sen. Ron Ramsey, R-Blountville, who did not seek re-election. Lawmakers convened for the 110th Tennessee General Assembly with new leadership in the Senate and a House speaker eying a gubernatorial bid. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

Senator Randy McNally, R-Oak Ridge, center, is sworn...

Photo by Associated Press /Times Free Press.

State House Speaker Beth Harwell, R-Nashville, is sponsoring a bill that seeks a federal waiver that would mandate work requirements for able-bodied, working-age TennCare recipients.

State House Speaker Beth Harwell, R-Nashville, is sponsoring...

Photo by C.B. Schmelter

Lt. Gov. Randy McNally, the Republican Senate speaker, told reporters, "I think the president is headed in the right direction" in terms of raising the age from 18 to 21 when it comes to someone's ability to buy semi-automatic weapons.

House Speaker Beth Harwell, R-Nashville, meanwhile, demurred on the assault-style weapons, telling reporters she has "a little bit of conflict here because I bought one for my son. ... When that's the only thing he wants for Christmas, what do you do, right?"

Trump's tweets earlier Thursday came a day after he met with survivors, families and teachers following the latest mass school shooting, this one in Parkland, Fla., that left 14 students and three teachers dead.

Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris, R-Collierville, said he backs "discussing" an age limit change at the state level.

"If there are restrictions on what 18-year-olds can do ... it sort of begs the question ... " said Norris. "I'm glad they are going to take it up there" at the federal level.

Sen. Bill Ketron, R-Murfreesboro, said he could support increasing the age to purchase assault-style weapons to 21 and banning bump stock sales.

Two Democrats, Senate Minority Leader Lee Harris of Memphis and Rep. Dwayne Thompson, D-Cordova, have introduced legislation to ban sales of bump stocks. Ketron said that although he wasn't aware of their bill, he "probably would" back it.

Kate Derrick, a spokeswoman for Republican Gov. Bill Haslam, said in an email that the governor believes proposals to raise the age to 21 on semi-automatic weapon purchases and to ban bump stocks "both are suggestions that should be considered."

And the governor told reporters earlier this week he has ordered a review of safety at Tennessee schools.

State Republicans spent much of their time discussing Tennessee's own problems getting a fully automated background check process up and going. It's aimed at ensuring guns and state handgun-carry permits are kept out of the hands of people declared mentally ill.

"We have a bill that looks at that reporting going back first to the court, then to the local law enforcement ... so we are trying to close that gap," said Sen. Ferrell Haile, R-Gallatin.

A 2015 audit by the state comptroller's office found the state's Administrative Office of the Courts was having major problems in getting the system up and going. Officials started working on the system after Republicans sought to tighten scrutiny of the mentally ill through a 2013 law.

Part of the problem was varying degrees of compliance by local courts and clerks, along with inconsistency on spellings of names and problems with dates of birth.

Lee Harris

Lee Harris

Photo by Angela Lewis /Times Free Press.

State Rep. Craig Fitzhugh, D-Ripley, speaks on the opening day of the legislative session Tuesday, Jan. 9, 2018, in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

State Rep. Craig Fitzhugh, D-Ripley, speaks on the...

Photo by Associated Press /Times Free Press.

A follow-up look by the comptroller's office last fall said the system was still not fully functioning. A spokesperson with the Administrative Office of the Courts did not respond to a Times Free Press request for comment Thursday.

Another Trump proposal to arm teachers has support from Republicans, who want to tweak a state law that allows designated school staff to be trained up to police standards and carry firearms in school.

Ketron said it's an expensive proposition for educators, and Republicans are eyeing a private-sector firm that's less costly than training offered by the state's Peace Office Standards Training Commission.

House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh, D-Ripley, a candidate for governor, blasted Republicans' trepidation in considering stronger measures, accusing them of bowing to the National Rifle Association, whose president, Wayne LaPierre, offered a stout defense of gun rights on Thursday.

"It's all about politics and getting re-elected," Fitzhugh said. "That's the bottom line. Now if there's enough opposition [from Tennesseans], maybe lawmakers and politicians won't feel the need to cow to something they know isn't right.

"Teachers don't become teachers to become policemen," said Fitzhugh.

The Tennessean newspaper reported that House Majority Leader Glen Casada, R-Franklin, and House GOP Caucus Chairman Ryan Williams said in a joint statement they appreciated the president's efforts and were open to having a discussion in Tennessee.

"We are committed to upholding current laws that help keep guns out of the hands of criminals and those who suffer from mental illness," they said in their statement. "At the same time, we must do all we can in order to protect the Second Amendment rights of our law-abiding citizens."

Contact Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com or 615-255-0550. Follow him on Twitter @AndySher1.