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Sen. Bill Hagerty, R-Tenn., questions Attorney General Merrick Garland during a Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, Science, and Related Agencies hearing to discuss the fiscal year 2023 budget of the Department of Justice at the Capitol in Washington, Tuesday, April 26, 2022. (Greg Nash/Pool Photo via AP)

NASHVILLE — Tennessee and Georgia U.S. senators are splitting along partisan lines this week on legislation to strengthen federal gun laws while also providing billions of dollars in new funds to help stave off future mass shootings.

U.S. Rep. Lucy McBath, a Georgia Democrat whose 17-year-old son, Jordan Davis, was killed at a Florida gas station by a man who confronted him over loud music emitting from his car, heralded the bill's movement in the Senate.

"For the first time in almost three decades, Republicans and Democrats have come together to address this epidemic of gun violence, and I am proud of the momentum we are building in this fight to keep our children safe," McBath said on social media. "We cannot wait another moment. We must act now & save lives."

Tennessee Republicans Sens. Marsha Blackburn and Bill Hagerty opposed the measure both Tuesday and Thursday in procedural votes. The Bipartisan Safer Communities Act, which while modest nonetheless, represents the first significant gun legislation in more than a quarter century, proponents say. A final vote on the measure could occur later on Thursday or Friday.

Fourteen Republicans, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, voted for the measure, which was put together by a 20-member bipartisan group of 10 Democratic and 10 Republican senators. The driving force behind the effort was the nation's latest mass shooting May 24, when 19 children and two teachers were shot to death at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas. An 18-year-old man has been charged.

U.S. Sens. Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock, both Georgia Democrats, voted for the bill, which would expand background checks for prospective gun buyers between the ages of 18 and 21.

The bill also seeks to incentivize states to provide access to previously sealed juvenile records for background checks and could add several days to the waiting period before a purchase can be completed. It would provide $15 billion in new federal funding for mental health programs and school security upgrades.

A $750 million provision would provide grants to encourage states to create so-called "red flag" laws allowing law enforcement or other entities to petition a court to remove guns from a person deemed to be a threat to themselves or others.

Another provision would close the so-called "boyfriend loophole" in an existing law that prevents people convicted of domestic abuse from owning a gun. It currently only applies to people who are married to, living with or have a child with the victim. Now, it would apply to couples who are in nonmarital relationships.

Blackburn said Wednesday on Fox News' "America Reports" she opposes the bill "because the Second Amendment is not negotiable."

"It is not a suggestion. It is a right," Blackburn said. "And I'm not going to support anything that is going to infringe on a law-abiding citizen's Second Amendment rights."

Hagerty said during a Wednesday appearance on Bloomberg TV's "Balance of Power" program he had multiple concerns with the legislation.

"I think when you get into the way the language is worded, particularly vague around some of the red flag law provisions, what it does is it provides, you know, unelected bureaucrats and judges a great deal of autonomy to determine how they're going to restrict Americans' Second Amendment rights," Hagerty said. "That's a problem for me. And I think it'll be a problem for many of my colleagues."

Hagerty added that he does see some provisions surrounding mental health, behavioral health and the "hardening" of schools as items "that I think we can address."

"But the red flag law component of it, I think has got some real issues," Hagerty added. "I haven't seen the type (of red flag law) that I would support at this point. You think about it — New York had a red flag law in place and it didn't do anything to stop that shooting there either."

"I think the key question for me, and I think it is for many of us here, is it needs to be done in a way that it does not constrain our fundamental, constitutional rights. And that's the concern that I have," Hagerty said.

On Thursday, Hagerty hailed a just-released U.S. Supreme Court decision in which justices voted 6-3 along partisan lines to strike down a New York state law requiring gun-license applicants who carry their firearms outside of their homes to have a "proper cause" to do so, writing that it violated the Second Amendment.

It has no practical effect in Tennessee, which has long allowed persons with handgun carry permits to go armed in public and also has a permitless gun-carry law on its books.

Hagerty said in his statement Thursday that "the Second Amendment to our Constitution is clear: Americans have a right to keep and bear arms without government infringement."

Efforts to obtain comments from Ossoff and Warnock were not immediately successful on Thursday.

Moms Demand Action, which advocates for gun safety laws, praised the action.

"We're on the cusp of the cathartic moment in Congress we've been waiting for for a generation, and it's a monumental day for the gun violence prevention movement," said Shannon Watts, founder of Moms Demand Action. "We're encouraged to see such broad, bipartisan support for life-saving legislation, and our grassroots army of volunteers will continue their work to get this bill across the finish line."

Contact Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @AndySher1.

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