Guns gum up works as Legislature speeds to adjournment

By: - April 18, 2023 12:46 pm
Members of the Tennessee House of Representatives. (Photo: John Partipilo)

Members of the Tennessee House of Representatives. (Photo: John Partipilo)

Lawmakers are heading for a showdown over the governor’s extreme risk protection order plan and, possibly, a gun safe storage bill as they try to adjourn for the year before the end of the week.

The National Rifle Association stepped into the arena Tuesday with a statement saying “red flag” laws turn the Second Amendment “into a second-class right” and claiming they allow authorities to confiscate guns using “a mere accusation.”

The Senate and House, meanwhile, are believed to be far apart on passing a bill designed to take guns away from people deemed a risk to themselves and others. But even within Senate leadership, the governor’s order of protection idea is pitting key senators against each other as talks take place between lawmakers and the governor’s office.

“I’m not on the team,” said Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, of weapons-related bills, while Senate Majority Leader Jack Johnson of Franklin declined to comment about bills on safe gun storage or an extreme risk order protection plan, saying “I have seen no bill. I’ve seen no language, and I’m not gonna comment on something I haven’t seen.”

For instance, while Senate Speaker Pro Tem Ferrell Haile of Gallatin said Tuesday he hopes to see something in the way of an order of protection bill pass, Senate Majority Leader Jack Johnson of Franklin is barely broaching the idea publicly. An amendment is said to be floating among the Senate.

But Johnson said Tuesday, “I have seen no bill. I’ve seen no language, and I’m not gonna comment on something I haven’t seen.”

Meanwhile, Sen. Todd Gardenhire, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said he’s “not seeing anything” when it comes to weapons-related bills. 

“I’m not on the team,” Gardenhire, a Chattanooga Republican, said Tuesday.

Gardenhire previously said no gun-related bills would go through his committee. But if legislative leaders want to force a bill through the General Assembly, they could find a way.

A spokesperson for Gov. Bill Lee said Tuesday he is still working with legislative leaders to bring an “order of protection law” this session to ensure people who intend to harm themselves or others won’t have access to weapons. The measure would require due process and a high burden of proof while preserving constitutional rights.

On the other hand, a $55.6 billion budget plan is expected to coast through the Legislature. It was approved Tuesday in Senate and House finance committees and is to be sent to the floors for Wednesday votes.

Passing a budget is the only constitutionally required task of the General Assembly. But in the wake of the Covenant School shooting that claimed six lives, including three 9-year-olds, lawmakers are being asked to take a new look at gun laws, including a so-called “red flag” measure to keep guns away from dangerous people, and possibly a gun storage bill requiring people to lock weapons in vehicles when left unattended.

A couple of bills dealing with orders or protection could be heard in House committees, but it’s unclear what type of reception they would receive in the Senate, said Democratic state Sen. Jeff Yarbro of Nashville.

“Over the last two weeks, this Legislature has demonstrated its capacity to move quickly when it wants to. The only question right now is whether we have the will to take action,” Yarbro said.

House Republicans are anxious to end the session and go back home, suffering from the embarrassment of expelling two Black lawmakers and without passing new gun laws.

Lawmakers who oppose any types of gun restrictions would have cover in this atmosphere, though, especially with suburban moms demanding the Legislature take action on measures such a “red flag” law and gun storage, which supporters argue will cut back on thefts from vehicles. Background checks, which the governor strengthened in a recent executive order, could come into play, as well.

The packed interior of McKendree Methodist Church in Nashville, prior to a march for safe gun laws. (Photo: John Partipilo)
The packed interior of McKendree Methodist Church in Nashville, prior to a march for safe gun laws. (Photo: John Partipilo)

About a thousand people marched Monday to the State Capitol from McKendree United Methodist Church in downtown Nashville carrying six caskets memorializing those killed in the Covenant shooting.

Many of those who rallied in support of tighter gun laws waited in vain for a House bill to be heard that would allow teachers to be armed during the school day. They planned to oppose it and claimed afterward their showing helped postpone the measure.

The bill’s sponsor, Republican Rep. Ryan Williams of Cookeville, placed the bill “on the desk,” a move that puts it in limbo but keeps the bill alive in case the House decides to take it up again.

The Senate version of the bill, though, was postponed until late January 2024, and reviving it would take a monumental effort.

Yet another bill to lower the gun-carry age to 18 was postponed until next year on Tuesday. But the state already is preparing to handle 18-year-olds being eligible for the permit-less carry law after Attorney General Jonathan Skrmetti reached an agreement with a California firearms group that sued the state, claiming its 21-and-above requirement was unconstitutional.

Yet another bill holding gun manufacturers harmless in liability cases was to be considered Tuesday.

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Sam Stockard
Sam Stockard

Sam Stockard is a veteran Tennessee reporter and editor, having written for the Daily News Journal in Murfreesboro, where he served as lead editor when the paper won an award for being the state's best Sunday newspaper two years in a row. He has led the Capitol Hill bureau for The Daily Memphian. His awards include Best Single Editorial from the Tennessee Press Association.