Republican lawmaker calls Tennessee Gov. Lee’s special session on gun laws a ‘counter-productive publicity stunt’

Students protest gun violence in schools at the legislative plaza and state Capitol Monday, April 3, 2023, in Nashville, Tenn. The protest was held one week after six people were killed by a shooter at The Covenant School, a private Presbyterian school, in Nashville. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

NASHVILLE — A freshman Tennessee Republican House member and two GOP colleagues urged Gov. Bill Lee on Wednesday to abandon his plans to call an Aug. 21 special session on state gun laws and public safety following the mass shooting in March at a private Nashville school that left three children and three adults dead.

In his open letter "to be signed by TN Republican lawmakers" posted to Twitter, Rep. Bryan Richey of Maryville charged the Republican governor's planned effort appears to be an "expensive, disruptive, futile, and counter-productive publicity stunt."

"As you know, the 113th General Assembly adjourned its 2023 session without passing your proposed 'red flag law,' and House Republicans have emphatically expressed their opposition to such measures in the future. Senate Majority Leader Jack Johnson has flatly stated that 'the Tennessee General Assembly will not pass any red flag law, period,'" Richey said.

"The Covenant tragedy would not have been averted by a 'red flag law' in any event. Your proposed special session is a solution in search of a problem," the freshman representative said.

The legislation would be prohibited by the U.S. Supreme Court's 2022 ruling in New York State Rifle & Pistol Association v. Bruen, Richey said, also noting lawmakers could debate firearms issues come January. The Bruen decision struck down a New York gun law, ruling that Americans have a right to carry firearms in public. The opinion also established new standards for courts to consider in lawsuits challenging gun restrictions.

Lee Press Secretary Jade Beyers said in a statement to the Chattanooga Times Free Press the governor's office was aware of the letter.

"Separately," Byers stated in her text, "the governor looks forward to pursuing thoughtful solutions with the General Assembly in August to ensure public safety and preserve constitutional rights."

The governor has repeatedly dismissed critics' assertions that his proposal is a red flag law, which refers generally to laws that allow law enforcement or judges to temporarily block access to guns for people who pose a danger to themselves or others.

Lee has referred to his proposal as an order of protection proposal, allowing judges to issue an order limiting gun access for those deemed a danger to themselves or others. Lee says his proposal includes due process rights before gun rights can be reined in for such people, setting it apart from similar laws in 21 other states.

House Majority Leader Willam Lamberth, R-Portland, and GOP Caucus Chairman Jeremy Faison of Cosby said in a joint statement they will be prepared if Lee carries through with his plan to call the special session.

"If our governor calls the legislature into a special session to discuss any issue, the Republican Caucus will certainly be ready, willing and able to debate the best way forward for our state, just as we have done in the previous special sessions. We will continue to defend and preserve civil rights while ensuring every community is safer than it is today," they said.

House Democratic Caucus Chairman John Ray Clemmons of Nashville weighed in and alluded to a recent Vanderbilt University poll that found wide support for laws to keep firearms out of the hands of mentally ill people.

"Tennesseans overwhelmingly support gun safety laws to better protect our children and communities and want legislative action. Democrats agree and stand ready to get to work," Clemmons said in a statement to reporters. "As usual, the only thing standing in the way of public safety is the Republican supermajority."

Sen. Jeff Yarbro, D-Nashville, said on Twitter that he was willing to work with anybody on either side of the aisle on almost any idea, except the proposal to cancel the special session.

"Just giving up without even trying is immoral & unacceptable," he posted. "It's literally our job to make policies that help keep people safe."

The 28-year-old shooter, identified by Nashville police as Audrey Hale, was a former Covenant student. Nashville police said Hale was armed with two semi-automatic weapons during the assault on the school. Hale was killed by police responding to the attack. Police said Hale's parents told them they thought Hale had given up a gun and were unaware the shooter had seven firearms.

Rep. Ed Butler of Rickman denied indications on social media that he had signed onto Richey's letter.

"I have not read nor endorsed Rep. Richey's letter addressed to Gov. Lee," the Overton County lawmaker said in his statement. "I have been out of town. I look forward to working on behalf of my district to find sensible solutions that address our mental health crisis and protect citizens' Second Amendment rights. I will stand with the citizens of House District 41 on this issue."

In a subsequent tweet, Richey removed Butler's name.

A journal kept by Hale and other writings have become the subject of four lawsuits filed by gun-rights groups as well as The Tennessean newspaper and Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, who are seeking release of the documents by Nashville police.

Gardenhire says lawmakers should have access to the documents before deciding on any kind of legislation in response to the shooting.

Former Hamilton County Sheriff Jim Hammond has joined the Tennessee Firearms Association in a similar lawsuit seeking the documentation.

Nashville police as well as Covenant School officials and parents have opposed the release.

An outside group, the American Firearms Association, has sharply criticized both the Tennessee Firearms Association and the National Rifle Association, for not pushing back strongly enough against Lee's proposals.

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