NASHVILLE — With Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee's special legislative session on public safety and mental health fast approaching, lawmakers in the Republican-controlled legislature have started filing a raft of bills.
Republicans' measures so far appear largely focused on people who commit, threaten or aid in acts of gun violence as well as mental health issues.
Rep. Yusuf Hakeem, a Chattanooga Democrat, said he plans to introduce a bill or two along those lines.
But Hakeem, a former member of the state Board of Parole, said he is looking at another bill that takes a different approach.
"Semi-automatic weapons, which I consider weapons of war, would be banned," Hakeem said in Tuesday in a phone interview. "We're not talking about taking away anyone's gun. We're talking about new sales or something.
"I think that's going to perk a few people up," Hakeem added, laughing. "They're going to have their lobbyists and everybody else out there."
Lee's call for the special session came after the March 27 shooting at The Covenant School in Nashville. Three 9-year-old students and three adults were killed in an attack on the private elementary school by a former student armed with semi-automatic weapons.
Lee proposed to give judges the authority to order guns taken from people deemed dangerous to themselves or others. The owner of the weapons could be present in court and could have legal counsel to object, which Lee said offered more due process than other states.
The GOP-dominated House and Senate were not warm to Lee's idea.
In advance of the special session, Lee has distanced himself from his original proposal. Lt. Gov. Randy McNally, the Republican Senate speaker from Oak Ridge and only top leader to support Lee's original proposal openly, has said it can't pass.
It's included in the 18-item list of topics lawmakers can consider in the session that begins a week from Wednesday. But Lee is not asking anyone to introduce it.
Second Amendment advocates and groups were adamantly opposed to the protective order proposal, deriding it as a red flag law. Gun-control advocates, meanwhile, were not thrilled with it, saying the process envisioned by Lee could take three to five days.
Lee does have a seven-bill list he plans to present. Only two appear to have anything to do with firearms. One permits lawmakers to consider incentivizing safe storage of firearms in vehicles by lifting sales taxes. So what else are Republicans looking at?
House Majority Leader William Lamberth, R-Portland, has introduced several measures, among them House Bill 7007, which says a parent or legal guardian of a minor victim of violent crime must first consent to the release of an autopsy report, provided the parent or guardian is not a suspect in the death.
"This is an important step we can take to preserve the dignity of a murdered child and protect the privacy of parents and siblings who are suffering an unimaginable loss," Lamberth said in a statement. "Sensitive information obtained in a medical examiner's report or autopsy should never be used to further victimize and traumatize these families."
Deborah Fisher, executive director of the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government, has concerns about the effort.
"I think it is a very big, broad bill that is being put in a special session where you're going to have two or three days of debate," Fisher said Tuesday in a phone interview, adding her understanding is Lamberth, a former prosecutor, introduced the measure at the request of a Covenant family.
"It's going to be way too complicated" for the legislation to be vetted quickly, Fisher added. She said autopsies can answer a number of questions, some of which can reveal contradictions between what police have said happened.
"Autopsies are just critical evidence to determine the truth of what happened to someone who was killed," Fisher said.
Lamberth has also introduced HB 7002. It requires local education agencies, public charter schools, private schools and church-related schools to develop a policy directing how students, teachers and staff are to respond when a fire alarm is activated on school premises outside of a scheduled fire drill. It is intended to address active shooter situations.
Yet another Lamberth bill expands the eligibility for filing a petition to obtain a lifetime order of protection to include victims of aggravated stalking and especially aggravated stalking.
A fourth Lamberth bill, HB 7004, would require a court or chief officer of a mental health facility that orders the release of a person from the mental health facility to notify the law enforcement agency that transported the person to the mental health facility of the person's release.
Rep. Gino Bulso, R-Brentwood, has introduced HB 7005. It seeks to clarify that a private school serving students in any of the grades pre-kindergarten through 12 is authorized to adopt a handgun carry policy for the private school's property.
Another measure, introduced by Rep. Jason Zachary, R-Knoxville, HB 7008, requires a qualified mental health professional or behavior analyst to take steps to warn or protect an identified victim or group of people when the professional determines a person has threatened bodily harm or intends to commit such harm. It provides immunity from civil, criminal and regulatory liability to provide such warning or protection.
Following The Covenant shooting, many Republicans and gun-rights groups such as the Tennessee Firearms Association have consistently argued the focus should be on the person who does the shooting and not on guns.
Working along those lines, Senate Speaker Pro Tem Ferrell Haile, R-Gallatin, has discussed legislation with the National Rifle Association and others to boost criminal penalties for people who threaten mass violence from a misdemeanor to a felony.
Haile announced last week he now stands ready to introduce a bill to do that.
"So much of the conversation about this special session has centered around guns, but inanimate objects are not the problem. Violent criminals are the problem," Haile said in a Senate Republican news release. "This legislation does not go after inanimate objects. Instead, it goes after criminals who intend to do significant harm to a group of other people, regardless of if the violence could be committed with a firearm, vehicle, bomb or other weapon."
Sen. Page Walley, R-Savannah, a licensed clinical psychologist, is proposing legislation to improve communications between law enforcement agencies and mental health institutions. Walley wants to clarify how local law enforcement agencies and local courts are to be informed when a patient who lives in their community is involuntarily committed or released from a psychiatric institution, the senator said.
If the patient lives in a different county than the location of the mental health facility, law enforcement in the patient's home county is in the dark about potential issues, Walley said.
Walley is also proposing legislation to impose a mandatory minimum sentence of five years for using a firearm in the commission of a crime.
Two Shelby County Republican senators, Paul Rose, R-Covington, and Brent Taylor, R-Memphis, said they plan to introduce a package of legislation increasing penalties for firearm-related crimes.
"Part of living in a free society is ensuring law-abiding citizens are free to live their lives without fear of being terrorized by criminals," Rose said. "In this special session, I look forward to focusing on measures to protect the livelihoods of our citizens by keeping dangerous criminals off the streets."