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Gun control already ruled out, Tennessee GOP lawmakers hit impasse in session after school shooting

Aug 24, 2023, 11:51 AM | Updated: 5:24 pm

People in the gallery hold signs supporting gun law reforms in the Senate chamber during a special ...

People in the gallery hold signs supporting gun law reforms in the Senate chamber during a special session of the state legislature on public safety Thursday, Aug. 24, 2023, in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/George Walker IV)
Credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS

(AP Photo/George Walker IV)

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Tennessee Republican lawmakers hit an impasse Thursday just a few days into a special session sparked by a deadly school shooting in March, leaving little certainty about what they might ultimately pass, yet all but guaranteeing it won’t be any significant gun control change.

After advancing a few bills this week, the GOP-dominant Senate quickly adjourned Thursday without taking up any more proposals, promising to come back Monday. The announcement prompted booing and jeers from the crowd of gun control advocates watching in the galleries.

But the decision also ignited outrage among the Republican supermajority inside the House as they continue to churn through a full slate of other proposals. House leaders argue that they’re using the special session to take up a wide range of proposals, while the Senate has refused to budge from passing anything that wasn’t in the limited legislative agenda outlined by the governor at the beginning of the special session.

Meanwhile, Democratic lawmakers have expressed alarm that the only bills being considered in either chamber have only focused on mass tragedy responses rather than preventive measures specifically addressing gun violence.

“We are preparing for the next tragedy,” said Democratic Rep. Justin Pearson, who was expelled from the House earlier this year for joining pro-gun control protesters from the House floor but has since been reinstated. “Preparing for the next victims of children … to be met with gun violence because maybe this is the best we can do.”

The standoff between the two chambers has added fuel to an already emotional and chaotic special legislative session, where gun-control advocates want the GOP-dominant Statehouse to consider tweaking the state’s relaxed gun laws.

Instead, Republican legislative leaders have taken steps to limit public access to the Capitol building and increased the presence of law enforcement. House Republicans attempted to ban the public from holding signs during floor and committee proceedings, but a Tennessee judge has since blocked that rule from being implemented. In one hearing, a House subcommittee chairman had troopers make the public leave the room after deeming the crowd too unruly. That included grieving parents closely connected to the school shooting, who broke down in tears at the decision.

Senate Speaker Randy McNally told reporters Thursday that senators will consider any bills the House may amend, but held off from promising to making a compromise with the other chamber.

“We might be here for too long of a period of time,” McNally said.

Legislative officials have said it costs nearly $60,000 a day when lawmakers are in session, but that doesn’t take into account the many state troopers that have lined the walls of the Capitol and legislative offices over the past week.

Republican Gov. Bill Lee called lawmakers back into session after the March shooting at The Covenant School in Nashville, where three children and three adults were killed. Lee had hoped to cobble together a coalition to pass his proposal to keep guns away from people who are judged to pose a threat to themselves or others, which he argued stopped well short of being a so-called red flag law. It had already failed to get a vote in the final days of the monthslong regular session that ended in April.

Ultimately, no Republican would even sponsor the bill for this week, and Democratic versions of it were spiked in committee without any debate.

Beyond that, the governor has proposed a few smaller changes that he touted would improve public safety, some of which the Senate has passed. They would incentivize people to use safe gun storage items; require an annual human trafficking report; etch into state law some changes to background checks already made by an order of the governor; and set aside more state money for school resource officers, and bonuses and scholarships for behavioral professionals.

House Republicans have taken up much more.

One of the proposals moving in the House would require that juveniles age 16 or older be charged as adults in murder or attempted murder cases. The measure would allow for a juvenile sentence combined with an adult sentence for when the offender turns 19, and would cover more than a dozen other offenses ranging from robbery to rape.

The House’s other active bills include one to shield the public disclosure of autopsies of child homicide victims, which is supported by a group of some Covenant School parents.

The House had considered, but stopped advancing, two bills to allow more teachers and staff, or members of the broader public with carry permits, to bring guns into public K-12 schools. Some bills about armed security in schools remain alive, including a proposal that would let local law enforcement leaders decide on their own whether to place officers in schools that don’t already have school resource officers.

“At this point, the Senate haven’t put forth a single idea that’s theirs,” House Speaker Cameron Sexton told reporters from the House floor. “So maybe next week they’ll come back and do something.”

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Gun control already ruled out, Tennessee GOP lawmakers hit impasse in session after school shooting