Gun control unlikely in GOP-led special session following Tennessee school shooting

Aug 18, 2023, 8:14 AM

FILE - Two women hug at a memorial at the entrance to The Covenant School on Wednesday, March 29, 2...

FILE - Two women hug at a memorial at the entrance to The Covenant School on Wednesday, March 29, 2023, in Nashville, Tenn. Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee on Tuesday, Aug. 8, 2023 unveiled a sweeping list of public safety issues he wants lawmakers to address during an upcoming special session prompted by a shocking Nashville school shooting earlier this year that resulted in the deaths of three children and three adults. (AP Photo/Wade Payne, File)

(AP Photo/Wade Payne, File)

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Tennessee’s GOP-dominant Legislature will return to the state Capitol on Monday months after a deadly school shooting, equipped with a long list of proposals about mental health, school resources, tougher penalties for violent criminals and more.

Almost certainly missing from the special legislative session will be any serious consideration of tightening Tennessee’s relaxed gun laws.

On March 27, a shooter opened fire at a Nashville Christian elementary school and killed six people, including three young students. The tragedy contributed to a record pace for mass killings in the U.S. this year and jumpstarted a statewide campaign to pass a law to help keep firearms away from dangerous people.

Desperate families personally connected to the shooting joined with conservative religious leaders and even Republican Gov. Bill Lee in lobbying for legislation that would temporarily remove guns from people showing signs of potentially violent behavior.

“We should address it, we should weigh into that,” Lee told reporters this week, but conceded that the General Assembly “ultimately decides” what will pass.

Law enforcement officials said the 27-year-old shooter had been under a “doctor’s care for emotional disorder,” that Audrey Hale had been planning the event for months and that the parents believed Hale should not own any weapons. But no legal steps were taken to prevent Hale from buying them, and police said they weren’t aware of Hale before the attack.

In Tennessee, there are limited avenues to preventing those perceived as dangerous to themselves or others from accessing firearms — with the legal frameworks mainly allowing such efforts in domestic violence cases. Some advocates argue that The Covenant School shooting could have been avoided if Tennessee had a so-called red flag law providing for extreme risk protection orders.

In a rare move bucking his political party, Lee called for extreme risk protection orders and began attempting to woo hesitant lawmakers, alongside celebrities, religious leaders and others. He insisted his proposal was not a “red flag law,” a label he criticized as toxic.

The push hit immediate resistance. Many Republican lawmakers weren’t on board with Lee’s attempt to dismiss the “red flag” label, and stuck with gun rights groups opposing the change.

In the other corner, some gun control advocates said Lee’s proposal isn’t protective enough.

As Lee’s team has noted, his plan would not allow for the use of “ex parte” orders — when a judge allows law enforcement to remove someone’s gun before the person’s court appearance. Lee’s office argued those orders can limit someone’s rights without first having a chance to be heard in court.

Behind the scenes, the state’s lead investigative agency expressed concerns about leaving out ex parte orders, worrying what would happen when someone would have up to 10 days to appear before a judge while a law enforcement agency has petitioned to have their weapons removed.

The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation’s concern was spelled out in a line-by-line analysis in the spring, which was sent to Lee’s office and obtained by The Associated Press in a public records request.

When Lee released his proposal late in a monthslong legislative session that ended in April, it didn’t muster enough Republican support to even get a committee hearing.

Little seems to have changed since then, and Lee appears to have pivoted his messaging away from talking about his proposal to the session’s broader focus — public safety — based on what lawmakers plan to consider.

“That particular piece of legislation has not been picked up by sponsors but there are dozens of ideas from multiple lawmakers that we believe will make Tennessee safer,” Lee said.

The GOP seems intent on toughening punishments, arguing that doing so deters criminals. Critics say more should be done to prevent attacks.

One idea proposed by GOP legislative leaders would make any threat of violence against two or more people a felony, with significantly increased penalties for threats against a school, church or government building. Currently the punishment is a misdemeanor.

“So much of the conversation about this special session has centered around guns, but inanimate objects are not the problem,” said Sen. Ferrell Haile, the Republican sponsoring this legislation. “Violent criminals are the problem.”

Other bills that could be discussed include shielding children’s autopsies from the public. Supporters say the idea was pushed by families connected to The Covenant School. Republican lawmakers have also introduced legislation to increase school security, add mental health facilities, improve the state’s background check system, and require optional handgun courses to include instruction on proper firearm storage.

Democratic lawmakers have introduced their own bills, though Republican supermajorities will likely prevent them from advancing. Tensions remain high after Republicans expelled two Democrats in April for a gun control protest on the House floor, only to have their constituents return them to their seats as nationally-known figures.

One Democratic proposal would increase penalties for stalking if the victim was a health care provider who was targeted for providing gender-affirming or abortion care; another would make it a felony to coerce a minor to steal a firearm.

“Tennesseans from all walks of life have made it clear: They want lawmakers to work together passing reforms that save children’s lives by preventing gun violence before it happens,” said Senate Minority Leader Raumesh Akbari, a Memphis Democrat.

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Gun control unlikely in GOP-led special session following Tennessee school shooting