Opinion: Doomsayers were fairly accurate about Tennessee special legislative session

AP Photo/George Walker IV / Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee speaks during a news conference after the state legislature's special session on public safety Tuesday, Aug. 29, 2023, in Nashville.

Well, they can't say they didn't warn us.

Several Tennessee lawmakers said in the lead-up to the just-concluded special session of the state legislature that nothing of substance involving guns, least of all an order of protection bill suggested by Gov. Bill Lee following the March shooting that killed six at Nashville's Covenant School, would be passed. And they were right.

Sure, $81 million was appropriated related to mental health, schools and a relative pittance for a public safety campaign for safe gun storage. But no laws were considered that would likely have made any difference in the actions of the Covenant shooter or in the prevention of her actions.

Oh, some might say a portion of the mental health money might have made a difference if it had found a way to services the shooter engaged with at some point, but that is a stretch.

Lee, as expected, had to put the best face on the session.

"It was a very difficult week," he said during a visit to Chattanooga Wednesday, "but it was also very hopeful, and that's because public safety is something that matters to every person. We made some substantive steps forward, and we made some major investments in mental health resources and in higher education safety grants."

Other than the money expended, the only hopeful aspect we see to the session is that some of the bills which might have had some effect on the shooter and the shooting may be reintroduced in the regular legislative session that begins in January, when they can be given a reasonable airing.

We admit our aspiration after Lee called the special session that legislators might examine their consciences and pass measures that put the Volunteer State in the forefront of gun safety — without compromising constitutional rights — was pie in the sky. And even our late hope for salvaging a safe storage law seemed far-fetched once it was mentioned that such a law could have constitutional implications.

But we didn't see the divide between the supermajorities in the Senate and House coming. The Senate decided it would deal only with what Lee set forth in his priorities for the session. Meanwhile, the House proposed dozens of bills, not all dealing with what Lee had in mind.

That caused heartburn between the two chambers, with House Speaker Cameron Sexton, R-Crossville, castigating the Senate a week ago Friday for not being willing to do their jobs. The two sides came to a reluctant agreement last Tuesday, with the House passing the four bills the Senate had already passed and the Senate appropriating the funds involved.

Of course, that wasn't the only drama.

New restrictions on seating and signs (the latter blocked by a temporary restraining order), although put in place to help keep the serious business of the state from becoming a circus, were not welcomed by those who hoped emotion would win the day. That news that the circus wouldn't win out, quite naturally, took precedence, with the session portrayed nationally as a group of unfeeling, uncaring Republicans unwilling to pass the simplest restrictions that would put an immediate and final end to all mass shootings.

It's just not that easy, folks. Never will be.

What passed in the end was an annual reporting requirement on child and human trafficking crimes and trends; a timely reporting requirement of records from court clerks to the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation (codifying a Lee executive order following the Covenant shooting); a bill that directs the Department of Safety to provide free firearm locks to Tennessee residents requesting them, requires department-approved handgun safety courses to contain instructions on safe storage of firearms, and exempts the retail sale of firearm safes and firearm safety devices from sales and use taxes beginning Nov. 1; and a bill to appropriate the money.

To our mind, the week-plus special session showed:

› Republican Senate and House members, and a good many of the people they represent, are not willing to have guns removed from anyone at any time for any reason (other than what already is codified in law).

› It's not likely to happen all at once, but a winnowing away at the Republican supermajority is likely the only route to compromise legislation involving guns.

› The supermajority of Republicans in the legislature may respect Lee but won't hesitate to go their own way on legislation he suggests.

› The Senate and House may drift farther apart if the bad feelings between the two houses during the special session aren't resolved.

It's often said of courtroom proceedings that you don't ask a question to which you don't know the answer and of government that you don't introduce a bill you aren't sure has a reasonable chance of passing.

We're afraid that's what happened with the special session this year — that the legitimate emotion surrounding the Covenant shooting prompted Lee to call it and to suggest an outcome for it (the order of protection bill or something even more forceful) that was never going to happen.