NASHVILLE — Just days after a shooter armed with semi-automatic guns killed three 9-year-olds and three adults at a Nashville private Christian elementary school in March, Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee called on the General Assembly to enact a law to allow law enforcement to remove firearms from unstable people through a judicial process.
It was, the Republican governor said, "our moment to lead" and the "right thing to do."
Lee's fellow Republicans, who comprise a supermajority in both chambers, balked amid ongoing massive demonstrations about gun violence at the Capitol, including families from The Covenant School, where the shooting by Audrey Hale, a 28-year-old former student, occurred. Lawmakers in April quickly adjourned their annual session.
Soon afterward, Lee announced he would call them into special session and subsequently engaged in weeks of closed-door meetings with lawmakers and others on ways to address gun violence.
On Monday, nearly five months later, the special session called by Lee is set to begin on public safety issues.
While Lee's 18-provision call includes a provision allowing lawmakers to consider judicial orders removing guns from dangerous people, it isn't one of the seven bills Lee plans to push himself. Nor are any Republican leaders.
Lt. Gov. Randy McNally, the Republican Senate speaker from Oak Ridge, has said that although he supports it, there simply is no support among most other GOP lawmakers to pass it. Both Senate Majority Leader Jack Johnson, R-Franklin, and House Majority Leader William Lamberth, R-Portland, flatly said they won't carry any such bill.
Instead, Republicans are focusing on mental health and providing more resources and security to schools while cracking down on juveniles who commit violent crimes.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, isn't especially happy about the governor's special session call.
"Well, I have not heard of any bill that's filed — there may be one, maybe two — of his bills that he filed in his call that may pass," Gardenhire said in a Friday phone interview. "One of them will be the last one, to pay for all this stuff. I don't know what that dollar amount will be. ... But something has to pay for this special session and anything that might be passed."
Gardenhire intends to tell Judiciary Committee colleagues that "if it's not in the call and it does not address how to stop future Covenant shootings — and if it doesn't address the reasons why a person would commit such a crime — then my suggestion is none of those things need to be heard in this 'regular session' coming up Aug. 21," he said.
The state senator from Chattanooga calls it a regular session because the proposals have nothing to do with a special session, he said.
"A special session was called back in April by the governor to address the Covenant shooting and mental health of people who commit such a crime," Gardenhire said. "And none of these bills being presented tackles those issues. Every bill I've seen so far can just as well be heard in a January, February through April session next year. Won't make any difference. And so, therefore, I have termed them regular session bills that will be heard in a special session.
"I'm going to suggest that all these bills be put off until the regular session," he said. "That's just going to be my suggestion to the Judiciary Committee. All these other bills can wait. There's nothing urgent about any of these bills — except ego."
When asked about the proposal to let judges order gun removal for dangerous Tennesseans, Gardenhire said it's not being offered by anybody.
"If the governor doesn't believe in it, then why should we believe in it?" the state senator said. "He called this session, and now, he doesn't believe in why he called it?"
While Gov. Bill Lee's special session call to address public safety contains 18 provisions, the governor's own agenda includes seven. They are:
— Codification of Executive Order 100 and Tennessee Bureau of Investigation report implementation: Requires reporting of accurate, complete and timely records from court clerks to the TBI within 72 hours and requires electronic submissions of dispositions and expungements to the TBI.
— TennCare mental health coverage waiver: Directs TennCare to seek a waiver from the federal government to allow federal matching funds for Medicaid to cover services for mental illness and substance use disorders at institutions of mental health.
— Addressing mental health workforce challenges: Budget initiatives that prioritize opportunities to grow and retain mental health professionals in the state.
— Reforms for mental health: Expands access to mental health treatment by eliminating certain collaborative practice requirements for advanced registered practice nurses with psychiatric training.
— Strengthening the identification of individuals arrested for felonies: Provides for the collection of DNA at the time of an arrest for all felonies.
— Human trafficking report: Resolution directing TBI to report on the state of human trafficking in Tennessee.
— Promoting safe storage: Eliminates taxes on firearm safes and safety devices, provides free gun locks, expands safe storage training in state-approved safety courses and provides for public service announcements to promote safe storage.
Democrats said they are readying a raft of bills, including universal background checks for gun purchases; an extreme risk order of protection measure, known as a red flag law; safe storage requirements for firearms in vehicles; and repealing what Senate Democrats characterized as the "disastrous" 2013 law known as "guns in trunks," which allows people to store weapons in their vehicles.
During an interview in his Senate office last week, Sen. Jeff Yarbro, D-Nashville, took issue with Republicans, saying they are trying to shove everything possible into a special session expected to last less than a week. He took issue with a push by House Speaker Cameron Sexton, R-Crossville, and some of his fellow Republicans to pass new laws providing "blended" sentences for juveniles convicted of violent crimes in which they would serve part of their sentences as juveniles and the remainder as adults.
"Frankly, it would be a moral abdication to find new ways to punish and incarcerate kids in this special session. Especially if we fail to do anything to keep them safe from gun violence," Yarbro said. "The Covenant families as well as every other family of school-age kids in the state should be deeply disappointed. If we're not serious about keeping deadly firearms out of the hands of individuals that have been demonstrated to be dangerous in a court of law, I don't really understand what we're doing here."
House Democratic Caucus Chair John Ray Clemmons of Nashville questioned Lee's leadership, pointing to the governor not pushing for an extreme risk protection order bill despite calling for one after the shooting in Nashville.
"I don't think he understands how to pass anything tough," Clemmons said by phone last week. "And I think that's why he's probably throwing his ERPO out. I honestly don't think he honestly knows how. The governor of Tennessee wields extraordinary power and sticks, carrots. If he honestly wanted to do something to better protect our children and families, he could get it done — if he had the will and desire and basic courage to get it done."
During a sit-down interview Friday in his office, House Speaker Cameron Sexton, R-Crossville, said he expects that after lawmakers commence their special session at 4 p.m. CDT Monday, someone will make a motion to adjourn.
"We'll see what happens," Sexton said, quickly adding, "I think there's a lot of good things we can do that need to be done sooner rather than later. And on some of those things, I don't think you can wait 12 months before you have a solution for some of those issues."
He brushed aside criticisms by Democrats and others that Republicans are avoiding issues keeping people who are dangerous from having guns.
"What they want to do is keep guns away from people, I think," Sexton said, noting he has discussed the issue with prosecutors, law enforcement and judges.
"When you charge someone with a crime, it's the individual that created the crime," Sexton said. "They're using an instrument to harm people. So you charge the person, you don't charge the weapon."
Sexton noted Hale had been under treatment by a doctor.
"When you look at the duty to warn statute, it doesn't tell the health care provider who they should warn. It's gray. It doesn't say," Sexton said. "You'd assume they would warn law enforcement," but it doesn't require that.
"With her being under a doctor's care for so long and knowing how mass shooters talk and all the journals that she kept and what she put in those journals, you'd assume she would have conveyed some of that to her health care provider," the speaker said.
If the state had a clearer "duty to warn" clause, the health care provider "could have warned law enforcement, and they could have stopped it before it ever got there," Sexton said.
"You have an emergency and involuntary commitment statute that says you have to be an immediate harm to yourself or others where immediate means now," Sexton said, adding it's only used now for people who are suicidal.
"But it's not used for people who propose mass threats because that's an imminent threat and not an immediate threat for the most part," he said. "No one knew she was an immediate threat until she made that one phone call, and the person she called thought she was suicidal and not a mass shooter."
If the state had an emergency involuntary commitment clause, Hale could have fallen under that if worded correctly by referring to "imminent threats," Sexton said, adding Hale could have been committed for five to eight days through the judicial process as it is laid out.
"That could have worked," Sexton said. "So there's things that broke down that I think we should fix."
The speaker also advocated for his blended sentence proposal for juveniles committing crimes involving guns. They could face having to go on to serve time in an adult prison. Adults are using juveniles to commit crimes, knowing they would be out of juvenile facilities when they turn 19, Sexton said.
"It doesn't mean you automatically go into adult (prison)," Sexton said. "It means you're tried as a juvenile, you have a blended sentence of up to age 24. But you have mandatory conditions you have to meet in order not to go to adult court. Things like holding employment, be in school, have good grades — things that should be required."
'A safer Tennessee'
During a visit Wednesday to a groundbreaking event for the Bridgestone Americas expansion in Morrison, Lee was asked if he was disappointed his extreme risk protection order proposal had failed to gain any traction in terms of getting a Republican member to sponsor it.
"Actually, my goal when I set out on this was not centered around an event or a piece of legislation," Lee said. "My goal was to create a safer Tennessee. I'm actually very encouraged with the prospects of that happening in the next week. So I'm grateful for the members of the General Assembly who've actually leaned into this, who've stepped up, who brought forth ideas. I asked them to do that, and they've responded, Republicans and Democrats.
"That is what responsive government should be," Lee said. "That's what's happening next week, and we'll all be safer as a result, I think."