Tennessee Senate speaker: Gun order of protection provision won’t pass legislature in special session

Staff Photo by Robin Rudd / Tennessee House Speaker Cameron Sexton, left, and Lt. Gov. Randy McNally ceremonially sign a criminal sentencing bill in Chattanooga in 2022.

NASHVILLE — Among the 18 provisions included in Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee's call for an Aug. 21 special legislative session on public safety is one that lets lawmakers consider legislation authorizing judges to keep firearms out of the hands of people deemed dangerous to themselves or others.

But Lt. Gov. Randy McNally, the Republican Senate speaker from Oak Ridge who appears to be the only GOP member publicly saying he backs that, said it won't pass.

"I continue to support it, but it won't be an item that's discussed in special session," McNally said following a meeting of the State Building Commission on Thursday. "I think the votes aren't there. I think there needs to be a little more education done, a little more, you know, in-depth study."

During the regular state legislative session in the spring, Lee, a Republican, had called on the GOP-dominated legislature to pass an emergency bill with the judicial provision following the mass shooting at The Covenant School, a private Christian elementary school in Nashville.

Six people, including three 9-year-old children, were killed in the attack Nashville police said was carried out by a 28-year-old former student. Lee and his wife, Maria, were friends of Covenant's head of school, who was among those killed.

The shooter was killed by responding police. Nashville Police Chief John Drake told reporters Hale had legally purchased seven firearms prior to the shooting — including the three guns used in the shooting — and was being treated for an emotional disorder, according to multiple news accounts.


Republicans and gun-rights groups denounced Lee's proposal as a red flag law, although Lee insisted that unlike laws in other states, his proposal would allow someone who faced losing his or her firearm to participate in the judicial proceeding on gun removal.

That's drawn complaints from critics for not going far enough.

After Lee made his pitch, GOP members quickly ended their regular session with no action on the matter. But now they are coming back.

A number of Covenant parents hope something helpful will pass.

House Speaker Cameron Sexton, R-Crossville, who with the majority of his caucus had opposed Lee's order of protection proposal, reiterated to reporters following the State Building Commission meeting that it will not pass.

"What we do know, if you're looking at the Covenant shooting and what the breakdowns were, the enhanced orders of protection or red flag laws would not have solved her situation because nobody knew she had guns, nobody thought she was a threat. So how would that have solved that situation?" Sexton said.

But what would have worked was a requirement that the doctor caring for Hale warn officials of the risk, Sexton said.

"I think as you look at the emergency and voluntary commitment clause, she would have had to be an immediate threat to herself," the speaker said. "I don't think she was ever suicidal. But she was a threat to society based on comments she had made. We believe she probably made those to her health care provider as well, which would have worked as well."

Sexton said there is a "duty to warn" someone may be a threat, and he and others have posed a "lot of questions" to "stakeholders" on the topic.

"Some people say it has to be a very detailed specific harm to self or to others," Sexton said. "Others say it can be general. There's a lot of gray area. We want to clean up that gray area to make it very clear that when someone is going to harm themselves or others or society and makes those threats, there's a duty to warn mental health, law enforcement to allow somebody" to take action.

Lee's call to a special session also allows lawmakers to look at safe gun storage issues.

"It opens up to safe storage as far as doing maybe public safety announcements, public service announcements, giving tax incentives to purchase them," Sexton said. "But if you read in there, it also says you cannot impose penalties on people. It takes that off the table, so it closes the avenue on that as well.

"Is it government's job to continue to tell you what you should and shouldn't do?" he said. "You should make that decision for yourself."

During this year's regular session, a four-member group of big city and big county mayors, including Chattanooga Mayor Tim Kelly, supported a bill sponsored by Sen. Jeff Yarbro, D-Nashville, and Rep. Caleb Hemmer, D-Nashville.

It sought to make it a misdemeanor for someone to store a loaded or unloaded firearm or ammunition in a vehicle or boat unless the weapon or ammo is kept out of "ordinary" observation and locked in a trunk, utility or glove box or in a securely attached and locked box.

Kelly's involvement in gun-violence related issues came after two high-profile shootings in Chattanooga in 2022, including one on McCallie Avenue resulting in three deaths and 14 people injured.

The bill didn't make it out of the Senate Judiciary Committee, chaired by Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga. Following The Covenant School shooting, Gardenhire moved all firearms-related bills, both those favored by Second Amendment advocates and those supporting new requirements, to 2024, citing the high emotions on both sides of the gun debate following the rampage.

"The person kills people, the gun doesn't kill people, the person who pulls the trigger, they shoot, they aim, it's the person who kills the person," Sexton said Thursday. "The gun's not tried, the person is tried."

House Democratic Caucus Chairman John Ray Clemmons said by phone Thursday that Democratic lawmakers disagree with a number of things Lee included that GOP members want.

"We're obviously, unfortunately, limited to the language of the governor's proclamation," Clemmons said. "We are really limited. He's closed the door on a lot of common sense legislation that Tennesseans support."

Clemmons, an attorney, said provisions in Lee's call open the door to "eliminating decades of progress" and will "violate individuals' privacy on health records."

He said Republicans reject removal of firearms from people but support having them committed for mental health evaluation and treatment. Clemmons said GOP leaders would "take someone's liberty rather than temporarily remove their firearms. I'm really disappointed, and as a parent, I'm angry we're not going to make any progress.

"It's a complete disservice to the people of Tennessee that Gov. Bill Lee has intentionally closed the door on these options and cooperate with the extremists in the Republican majority," he added.

Democrats also object to a number of steps Republicans are contemplating taking.

The list includes "blended" sentencing for juveniles convicted of violent gun crimes, requiring they remain incarcerated when they become adults and making it easier to commit someone voluntarily or involuntarily to a mental health facility if they pose a danger to themselves or others.

Three new nonprofit groups created after the shooting are advocating for new safeguards to protect children from gun violence.

Two were created by Covenant School parents. One is Covenant Families for Brighter Tomorrows, which focuses on education around the issues of school safety, mental health and responsible gun ownership.

The Covenant Families Action Fund, meanwhile, will push for "meaningful legislative change" to improve school safety. Neither is formerly affiliated with the school.

A third group, Voices for a Safer Tennessee, a nonpartisan organization, which is not affiliated with the school nor the other two groups, has also engaged and is already running a video of a Covenant mother whose 9-year-old daughter died in the March gun assault.

In the days leading up to the special session, Democrats are hitting cities and towns across the state in advance of the special session.

Clemmons said legislative Democrats are holding an event at 6 p.m. Wednesday at Chattanooga's Miller Park.

Contact Andy Sher at [email protected] or 615-285-9480.