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Staff photo by C.B. Schmelter / Gov. Bill Lee speaks during a groundbreaking ceremony for the new Chattanooga Red Wolves SC stadium on July 9, 2019 in East Ridge, Tenn.

NASHVILLE — Calling two weekend mass shootings in Texas and Ohio "tragic and evil," Gov. Bill Lee said Monday his administration is seeking solutions in Tennessee to address what he says is a "very complex issue that involves mental health and radicalization, ideological radicalization."

"There are a lot of indicators early on for some of these folks," the Republican governor told reporters after the shooting sprees in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, that left at least 31 people dead and dozens of others wounded or injured. "We need to figure out how to get to them before they get to others."

But while Lee, who campaigned successfully last year on pro-2nd Amendment issues, said "we want to look at every option," he did not address areas such as persuading the GOP-led General Assembly to enact a Tennessee-based universal gun background check for firearm purchases.

Nor was Lee willing to commit to a "red flag" law that allows law enforcement or a family member to seize guns temporarily from people who a judge rules are a risk to themselves or another.

The governor said that in looking for ways to address mass shootings in Tennessee, which has experienced several that made national news in recent years, "we need to protect citizens, protect liberties and freedoms at the same time so we're working to look at all options out there."

"Many of these folks have made indications online about their intentions or certainly their troubled past and their mental health instability," Lee told reporters. "That's one of the things that I want to look at is ways to intersect that earlier and to see and to target that individual before they have the opportunity to target others."

Tennessee is no stranger to mass shootings.

In Chattanooga, Muhammad Youssef Abdulazeez in 2015 opened fire at a U.S. military recruiting center before speeding to a U.S. Navy Reserve center and opening fire. Four Marines died in the attack, while a Navy sailor later died from his wounds. A Chattanooga police officer and a Marine recruiter also were wounded in the attacks. Then-FBI Director James Comey later said the shootings were "motivated by foreign terrorist organization propaganda."

Nashville, too, has experienced mass shootings. In 2017, a emigree from Sudan went on a shooting spree in a local church, killing a woman and wounding seven others. And in 2018, an Illinois man with a history of schizophrenia shot four people to death in a Nashville Waffle House, wounding two others. His father later was charged with giving a gun back to his son despite knowing his mental problems.

In the wake of the nation's latest deadly mass shootings, a Tennessee House Democratic leader, who in 2017 startled and angered his GOP colleagues by bringing an unloaded semi-automatic rifle he purchased from a seller without having to provide any information, is renewing his call for the state to pass universal background checks.

Federal gun laws requires gun buyers to undergo the checks before buying from licensed dealers, but critics say there's a glaring loophole where persons are able to purchase guns at gun shows, in person-to-person exchanges and online.

Calling current state requirements "ridiculous," Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Stewart of Nashville said Tennesseans can face more stringent rules when they get a state driver license than when buying a gun.

"These mass shootings are not something that the public should simply accept or tolerate," Stewart said. "And the first step to addressing them is adopting universal background checks as many other states such as Colorado have done."

Stewart said he believes a "watershed" in Tennessee politics over gun laws will "occur when someone is thrown out of office in Tennessee because they have been an impediment to creating sensible background checks. I assume at some point people will get fed up."

 

Federal lawmakers speak out

U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann, R-Tennessee, in 2017 personally witnessed a shooting attack during a practice session for the annual Congressional Baseball Game for Charity in Alexandria, Virginia, when a left-wing activist fired his weapon, striking then-U.S. House Majority Whip Steve Scalise, U.S. Capitol Police officer Crystal Griner and others. The gunman was fatally shot.

The Ooltewah congressman said in a statement that he has supported the "Fix NICS [National Instant Criminal Background Check System] Act" to address "flaws in our existing background check system."

But he added "the rights of law-abiding citizens should not be infringed upon or curtailed because of failures to enforce existing laws. While protecting the Second Amendment rights of Americans, we must come together to address issues of access to mental health resources and a toxic culture of violence in our society."

When "each party goes to their respective ideological corners, we fail to mend the divisions and prevent tragedy," Fleischmann added. "I am ready and willing to have productive conversations regarding mental illness disorders and overcome these challenges as a nation."

U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tennessee, said the "nation cannot ignore these mass shootings" and pointed to 2018 legislation he helped pass "to eliminate loopholes in the background check system for gun purchasers. Two years ago, I helped rewrite federal mental health laws to improve the quality and coordination of mental health care, focusing on early intervention."

He cited other laws he co-sponsored to provide schools more funds to help stem school violence "meet the needs of students with mental health disorders."

Alexander said he is "ready to do more, especially on background checks, to identify those who shouldn't have guns."

He said U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, asked the Senate Health Committee he heads to "take an immediate look to find additional bipartisan ways to fund states' efforts to increase school safety and to help Americans with serious mental health problems."

But Alexander said "in a nation with a constitutional right to bear arms, new laws from Washington, D.C., alone won't stop this violence — it will take a change in behavior. Every day our internet democracy displays millions of hateful thoughts."

In order to change that, the senator said, "each of us has a responsibility to replace these hateful thoughts with statements that respect the dignity of every individual, regardless of their background."

U.S. Sen. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tennessee, called the weekend shootings "horrific tragedies perpetrated by evil individuals, and I condemn all forms of hate and hateful acts of any kind."

She said "we will work with the President to continue addressing this issue in a comprehensive manner by giving law enforcement the tools they need to reduce gun violence, while also respecting the constitutional rights of law-abiding citizens."

The mental health aspect "will also require further examination. We should look into how to expand providing proper treatment and facilities for the severely mentally ill. Last year, Congress passed the Fix NICS Act, which banned the use of bump stocks and strengthened reporting requirements for the National Instant Criminal Background Check System and the Department of Justice."

But she said "there is much more work to be done."

U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen, a Memphis Democrat, agreed and challenged Senate Republicans to follow House Democrats' lead.

"The horrific killings in Texas and Ohio are yet another grim reminder that people with nefarious motives are getting access to weapons of war and using them on defenseless civilians as they go about their daily lives," Cohen said in a statement. "Weapons of war have no place in the hands of civilians, and background checks for purchasing guns must be thorough."

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

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