NASHVILLE — Tennessee Senate Democrats have gone on the offensive in the lead-up to Republican Gov. Bill Lee's Aug. 21 special session on public safety and firearms.
They say a "surge" in gun violence began in the state about the time GOP lawmakers won control of both the Senate and House in 2010.
"After a decade of Republicans eliminating gun safety laws, shootings are now the leading cause of death for children in Tennessee, and innocent people are dying every day," Senate Democratic Caucus Chairwoman London Lamar of Memphis said in a release over the weekend. "Ending gun violence has always been one of my top priorities, and I will keep fighting for gun safety until we finally restore some sanity to our laws."
Lamar cited a study released in June by the nonpartisan Sycamore Institute. Among other things, it found gunfire was the leading cause of death for Tennessee children ages 1 to 18 in 2021.
Laws passed in the Republican-controlled legislature have included a 2015 bill signed by then-Gov. Bill Haslam that overrode local governments' ability to bar handgun owners going armed in parks, playgrounds and ball fields. Lee successfully pressed and signed into law his 2021 permitless carry bill that allows adults to go armed in public without having to undergo firearms training or background checks.
"Like falling dominoes, the number of people and children dying from gunshot wounds in the state just kept climbing," Democrats said in their release.
Efforts to reach spokespersons for Lt. Gov. Randy McNally, the Republican Senate speaker, and Republican Caucus Chairman Ken Yager, R-Kingston, were not successful Sunday.
Lee called for fellow Republicans to pass a law earlier this year that would allow judges to temporarily remove guns from people deemed to be a danger to themselves or others. Lawmakers took no action before they adjourned, leading to Lee's call for a special session.
His proposal came in response to the March 27 attack at The Covenant School in Nashville, a private Christian elementary school, in which three 9-year-old students and three adults died. The shooter, a 28-year-old former Covenant student, was killed by responding officers.
While Lee's proposal is included in his special session call, Democrats — including House Democratic Caucus Chairman John Ray Clemmons, a Nashville attorney — say the language is so limited it won't allow much action. Moreover, while Lee has included his proposal in the call, he's not expected to lead the charge to pass it with top Republicans in the House and Senate saying it's a nonstarter.
The governor's proclamation opens up state codes in 18 areas. Among them are state codes affecting orders of protection, mental health resources and providers, and health care providers' duty to warn about potential violence. Other sections allow legislators to draft legislation providing law enforcement access to criminal and juvenile records, blended sentences for violent juveniles that would keep them in prison when they become adults, encouraging but not requiring safe storage of firearms, and a mandate for law enforcement to enter information about arrests in a state database within 72 hours.
House Democratic leaders are hitting towns and cities across the state to promote what they believe should pass during the special session. Democrats are expected to be in Chattanooga's Miller Park at 6 p.m. Wednesday.
"The governor purposefully closed the door on a lot of commonsense gun-safety legislation that an overwhelming majority of Tennesseans support," Clemmons said in a phone interview, adding Democrats are getting a good response at their bus stops. "Meanwhile, he opened the door wide open to a lot of harmful legislation that could result in eliminating an entire decade's worth of progress on criminal justice reform. He's looking to potentially violate individuals' privacy when it comes to health records."
House Speaker Cameron Sexton was dismissive of Democrats' tour last week as he spoke to reporters following a State Building Commission meeting.
"You mean the same way they want to jam down gun restrictions on people and take away your ability to own guns and ban guns and ban ammunition and ban magazines, the same thing that they're wanting to put into special session?" Sexton said. "They're running around the state right now on a school bus that none of them are riding, apparently, they're hopping on it when they pull into the parking lot."
In a subsequent interview with Nashville television station WKRN, Clemmons laughed.
"Speaker Sexton may be a little jealous that people are actually showing up to our bus tour events, as opposed to the one he traveled around the state on in his luxury cruiseliner, and nobody came out to see him," he told the station.
The Covenant shooting drew massive protests at the state Capitol during this year's regular legislative session with calls for new gun restrictions. Three House Democratic lawmakers staged a floor protest, which resulted in two Democratic lawmakers who used bullhorns to address hundreds of protesters in the galleries later being expelled from the House.
The two lawmakers, Justin Jones of Nashville and Justin Pearson of Memphis, were later reappointed to their seats by their respective county legislative bodies. Earlier this month, voters re-elected both to serve out the remainder of their current term.
"If they cut off our microphone, I will pull out my megaphone again, because the people of my district deserve to have their voices heard," Jones told CNN last week. "Whether the speaker cuts off our microphone or not, our voices will be heard."
Sexton spokesman Doug Kufner issued a statement.
"The speaker and the members of the House will continue to enforce the House rules that are adopted by the body," Kufner said. "Rep. Jones was expelled for his disorderly behavior, which occurred on March 30, 2023. Any new offense constituting disorderly behavior by any member will be addressed accordingly."
During the brief time that Jones and Pearson were expelled, the two social activists were no long subject to Tennessee's ban on campaign funding while lawmakers are meeting in session. Having gained a national profile, the two young lawmakers raised $2 million before they were reinstated.