House Republicans balk at governor’s order of protection bill, calling it “red flag”

Lieutenant governor supports measure, while House speaker holds out

By: - April 19, 2023 2:52 pm
The Covenant School, where seven people, including the shooter, died in a mass shooting in Nashville, Tenn. on Monday March 27, 2023. (Photo: John Partipilo)

The Covenant School, where seven people, including the shooter, died in a mass shooting in Nashville, Tenn. on Monday March 27, 2023. (Photo: John Partipilo)

EDITOR’S NOTE: This story has been updated.

In final days of the 2023 session, House Republicans are ready to block Gov. Bill Lee’s last-minute pitch for a temporary “order of protection” law designed to stop mass shootings such as the one that killed six people at The Covenant School.

House Speaker Cameron Sexton declined to support the governor’s proposed bill Wednesday, and the House Republican Caucus later issued a statement saying, “Any red flag law is a non-starter” and noting that it wants a solution that stops dangerous people from harming others while preserving Second Amendment rights of law-abiding people.

“We have always been open to working with Gov. Lee on measures that fit within that framework,” the statement says.

Considering the House’s hesitation to support the governor’s bill, it’s unclear whether the Senate will take it up.

The Legislature is working rapidly toward adjournment for the year, and House Republicans are ready to go home, especially after a debacle involving the expulsion of two Black members stemming from a protest on the House floor and their subsequent reinstatement by the Metro Council and Shelby County Commission.

Lee issued a public call Wednesday for the Legislature to pass a bill guaranteeing due process and improving access to mental health support while allowing police to confiscate weapons from dangerous, unstable people for up to 180 days.

“… That should be done in a way that requires due process and a high burden of proof, supports law enforcement and punishes false reporting, enhances mental health support, and preserves the Second Amendment for law-abiding citizens,” Lee said in a video statement.

The bill would create a petition for a temporary mental health order of protection claiming the person poses a “substantial likelihood of serious harm by having a firearm or any ammunition” in the person’s possession. 

The legislation, which has no sponsor or bill number, could face its toughest path in the House where Sexton held back support.

“We recently received Gov. Lee’s proposed language. As we have said from the beginning, we are working with his administration and the Senate to find the best path forward to protect Tennessee children. These conversations will continue as we await more direction from the administration on which bill is sufficient to accomplish his goal,” Sexton said in a Wednesday statement before House Republicans came out with their stance against the bill. 

The measure isn’t expected to have full support from Republican lawmakers who hold a supermajority and are hesitant to balk at a request by the National Rifle Association to oppose any sort of “order of protection” bill or a “red flag” law.

A court would order a hearing within three to five days and issue a notice to hear from the person, who could hire an attorney or receive one by appointment.

If the court determines the petition is frivolous, it could dismiss the matter without a hearing or mental health evaluation.

Once the court approves the order, the person would be ordered to surrender all guns and ammunition. A hearing could be requested to vacate the order.

Anyone who makes a false complaint to have someone’s weapons confiscated could be charged with felony perjury.

Lt. Gov. Randy McNally came out in favor of the legislation Wednesday, but it isn’t expected to have full support from Republican lawmakers who hold a supermajority and are hesitant to shun a request by the National Rifle Association to oppose any sort of “order of protection” bill or a “red flag” law.

How the Legislature will handle the proposal in the waning days of the session is unclear because it is expected to cost the state money and require budget adjustments.

McNally, an Oak Ridge Republican, pointed out Second Amendment rights are God-given and secured by the Constitution. But he noted those are endangered when people use firearms to commit murder.

“Making sure the mentally ill and those in crisis do not have access to firearms while protecting the Second Amendment rights of everyone else is no easy task,” he said in a statement. “It is an extremely delicate balance. I believe that balance has been struck with this proposed temporary mental health order of protection.”

The proposal would not allow an “ex parte” order, meaning the subject of the complaint would have to be notified and have the opportunity to defend themselves using their own attorney or court-appointed counsel, McNally added.

“Most important is the temporary nature of the order. These orders will not be indefinite. When they expire guns are returned and the order cannot be held against the subject in the future,” McNally said, adding he has supported the concept previously and continues to work with the governor on it.

Lee, who signed an executive order last week streamlining background checks for gun purchases, said national politicians and the White House are calling his proposal a “red flag” law, which he contended is “nothing but a toxic political label meant to draw lines in the sand so nothing gets done.”

The governor also noted that some Second Amendment advocates argue that “involuntary commitment” is the solution to stop mass shootings, but he maintained that would restrict constitutional rights.

Lee pointed out state law already allows an order of protection and weapons restrictions on a man who threatens to hurt his wife and argued that his proposal would broaden that law to cover situations in which a person threatens to shoot himself or a church or shopping mall.

“This is a pivotal moment,” Lee said. “Buto both sides are at risk of standing in the way of a thoughtful, practical solution.”

Temporary Mental Health Order of Protection (007924)

Democrats downplayed the governor’s bill, saying his late proposal is a “watered down” bill that reads as if he’s more concerned about winning 75 Republican votes in the House than protecting children from gun violence.

“Tennesseans deserve leadership and courage on this issue from their elected leaders. Unfortunately, neither are coming from the other side of the aisle, and they should be held accountable for that,” said Rep. John Ray Clemmons of Nashville, chairman of the House Democratic Caucus.

Democratic Sens. Raumesh Akbari and London Lamar of Memphis, leaders of the Senate Democratic Caucus, urged Republican lawmakers to bring the bill to a committee vote Thursday, saying students and families are “desperate” for a solution to ending gun violence.

State Sen. Jeff Yarbro, a Nashville Democrat, said he plans to bring a bill today for an extreme risk protection order and secure gun storage in vehicles.

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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.