Governor to call special session after Legislature adjourns without passing gun restrictions
House Speaker Cameron Sexton and House Majority William Lamberth confer on April 6 during the expulsion hearing of Rep. Justin Pearson. (Photo: John Partipilo)
Gov. Bill Lee will call a special session to tackle gun reform after the Tennessee Legislature adjourned for the year Friday night without tackling gun reform nearly a month after a mass shooting at a Nashville private school.
The governor said Friday night he made the decision after discussions with legislative leaders. He did not lay out a time frame but said the session will be used to “strengthen public safety and preserve constitutional rights.”
“There is broad agreement that dangerous, unstable individuals who intend to harm themselves and others should not have access to weapons. We also share a strong commitment to preserving Second Amendment rights, ensuring due process and addressing the heart of the problem with strengthened mental health resources,” Lee said in a statement.
People have asked us to do something, and instead the majority party did nothing.
– Senate Majority Leader Raumesh Akbari, on the General Assembly's passage of culture war bills, while failing to address safe gun measures.
The 113th General Assembly passed a spate of culture war bills and a $56.2 billion budget but declined to take up the governor’s “order of protection” bill that would enable weapons to be confiscated from people deemed a risk to themselves and others.
Democrats urged the governor to bring the Legislature back to Nashville as soon as possible while lamenting the failure to pass any sort of weapons bill, calling the entire session a “failure.”
“People have asked us to do something, and instead the majority party did nothing,” Senate Minority Leader Raumesh Akbari said Friday night after the Legislature adjourned.
House Minority Leader Karen Camper contended “a very small handful of legislators” decided not to do anything about gun violence. She said Republican leaders approached her the day of the shooting and said they were ready to take on gun reform but then backed out.
Earlier in the day, House Speaker Cameron Sexton held out the possibility a special session could be called in a matter of weeks to take up weapons-related bills in response to the death of the six people, including three 9-year-olds, at The Covenant School in Green Hills. The shooter is believed to have been undergoing treatment for what family called “an emotional disorder” and had bought several high-capacity rifles, using two AR-15s in the deadly shooting before being killed by Metro Nashville Police officers.
But following the session, Sexton said “stakeholder” meetings should be held statewide to see where people stand on new gun-related laws.
The state is experiencing high revenues and the Legislature put some $240 million for legislative district projects into the record-setting budget. But Lt. Gov. Randy McNally said the Legislature would have been forced to amend the budget almost at the same time it went through approval, because of the late hour of Lee’s proposal. But he wouldn’t classify the wording in the governor’s plan as a “non-starter.”
Despite protests and rallies for the last three and a half weeks around the Capitol complex, the Republican-controlled Senate and House refused to act on Gov. Bill Lee’s bill putting a new “order of protection” law into place cutting access to weapons for people determined to be a danger to themselves and others. The measure, which never gained a sponsor, would have required the targeted person to have a court hearing before being ordered to turn in weapons.
The matter remains contentious.
A group called the American Firearms Association visited the Capitol complex Thursday, passing out papers opposing Lee’s bill as “red flag gun confiscation” and urging lawmakers to keep it from advancing.
A group of women, though, Voices for a Safer Tennessee, spent Thursday and Friday lobbying for passage of the bill and other measures designed to restrict weapons.
The group put out survey information showing a strong majority of people favor Lee’s plan, requirements to report stolen firearms, the closing of background check loopholes, a 72-hour waiting period for gun buys, and strong gun storage laws.
Yet a measure sponsored by Rep. Bo Mitchell, D-Nashville, to restrict sales of rifles capable of holding magazines with more than 10 rounds of ammunition failed Friday in a delayed bills committee made up of Speaker Cameron Sexton and House Majority Leader William Lamberth, both Republicans, and House Minority Leader Karen Camper.
Lamberth said he could never support such a bill because it would outlaw nearly every rifle made, including .22-caliber rifles, small gauge guns that can hold upwards of 20 bullets.
Sexton told Mitchell he might be able to bring the bill forward in a few weeks if a special session is called to consider gun-related bills or next year when the second half of the 113th General Assembly reconvenes.
Protests rocked the Capitol over the last month, and a chain of people stretched this week from Monroe Carell Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt where shooting victims were taken to the Capitol.
In that time frame, Republican lawmakers expelled two young, Black Democrats and tried to boot out a third for leading an anti-gun protest on the House floor and violating decorum.
Rep. Gloria Johnson of Knoxville survived the expulsion hearing, but Reps. Justin Jones of Nashville and Pearson came out on the short end of votes. They returned less than a week later after reappointments by the Metro Nashville Council and Shelby County Commission and regained their seats.
The so-called “Tennessee Three” received worldwide acclaim and in the past few days inserted themselves more actively into the House floor debate, often challenging the speaker and other members over rules and bills.
Jones said after the session he would give the Legislature an “F for failure, foolishness and fascism.” He was consistently shut down by Sexton for breaking debate rules.
Lawmakers also dealt this week with the sudden resignation of Republican Rep. Scotty Campbell, who was found by an ethics subcommittee of sexually harassing a 19-year-old intern, making vulgar comments to her and at one point grabbing her around the neck, according to a NewsChannel5 report.
Speaker Sexton laid Campbell’s decision to resign at the feet of the subcommittee, even though it doesn’t have the authority to penalize members for breaking rules. The subcommittee sent a letter to Sexton on March 29 letting him know its decision. But no action was taken against Campbell, and less than two hours before he vacated, he said he wasn’t going to step down.
Among the hotly-debated culture war items was a measure requiring the state treasurer to make investments based on financial factors, not environmental, social and governance interests.
State Rep. Jason Zachary, R-Knoxville, pushed the measure to passage, pointing out State Treasurer David Lillard requested the bill as a foundation for his investment strategies.
Pearson, an environmental activist, questioned the bill, saying it could cause racial injustice. Zachary responded that he was amazed Pearson could bring race into every matter he discusses on the House floor.
However, Rep. Jason Powell, D-Nashville, pointed out some of the most successful companies in the world, such as PayPal and Mastercard, use environment, social and governance policies to guide their decisions. Lawmakers and state leaders might disagree about climate change, Powell said, “But we want to make sure companies we invest in as a state have concerns about the future.”
Many of those culture-war bills that passed the Republican-controlled chambers, including one enabling teachers to opt out of “implicit bias training” drew sustained debate before passing with Republican support.
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