Senate panel clips bills designed to get at root of mass shootings

Only three pieces of legislation pass panel

By: - August 23, 2023 6:00 am
Mothers of Covenant School children sob after being kicked out of a House Committee hearing for holding 8.5-x 11-inch pieces of paper with messages. (Photo: John Partipilo)

Sarah Shoop Neumann (second from the left) outside the House Civil Justice Committee after Tennessee Troopers cleared the room. (Photo: John Partipilo)

The Senate Judiciary Committee turned into the Grim Reaper Tuesday, killing a long list of bills designed to respond to The Covenant School mass shooting while allowing only three to pass — setting the tone for the rest of the special session.

The panel’s decision to table 52 other bills, many dealing with juvenile justice, red-flag proposals and mental health reporting requirements are effectively dead for the session, according to Judiciary Committee Chairman Todd Gardenhire.

Measures that passed — and could be the only ones that become law this session — came from Gov. Bill Lee’s office: Senate Bill 7085 dealing with safe storage of weapons and allowing sales tax breaks on safes and gunlocks; SB 7086 codifying the governor’s executive order on gun background checks, which requires court clerks to notify the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation about felony convictions within three business days instead of 30; and SB7088, requiring the TBI to make an annual report on human trafficking.

This seems clearly orchestrated to do the absolute bare minimum, and it’s clear that the Legislature isn’t in a position to take gun safety seriously right now, and it’s damn depressing.

– Sen. Jeff Yarbro, D-Nashville

The full Senate could take vote on them Wednesday or Thursday. 

House bills that weren’t considered Thursday won’t be taken up by the Senate Judiciary and won’t be sent to the Senate floor, according to Gardenhire.

“The House is the House and the Senate is the Senate,” he said.

Sen. Jeff Yarbro, a Nashville Democrat, said afterward the meeting had been carefully plotted.

“This seems clearly orchestrated to do the absolute bare minimum, and it’s clear that the Legislature isn’t in a position to take gun safety seriously right now, and it’s damn depressing,” Yarbro said.

Asked about that comment, Gardenhire said, “Sen. Yarbro is always welcome to his conspiracy theories, and I’ll let him speak for himself.”

The Chattanooga Republican said the other bills on Tuesday’s calendar deserved a “proper hearing,” which would have required more time than is being allowed in this week’s special session.

Earlier in the day, Bishop Aaron Marble, who led a group of ministers at the legislative office building Tuesday, expressed disappointment in the Legislature’s actions but maintained some semblance of hope.

“We’re committed to understanding that the road to justice and freedom is a long one,” Marble said.

He pointed out “common sense” is being ignored and defeated, but he said the small number of bills likely to pass could help lead to a coalition that could put pressure on lawmakers.

A Senate Commerce and Insurance Committee meeting Tuesday morning wound up being a harbinger of things to come when it tabled a bill designed to require TennCare to cover mental health treatment the same way it would handle drug and alcohol abuse.

Committee Chairman Paul Bailey wrapped up the meeting in less than a minute as the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Shane Reeves, R-Murfreesboro, requested the matter be postponed until January 2024.

Reeves said afterward the “complex” bill needs more work.

“We’re trying to do what we normally do in four months in four days, and this bill deserves a little more than a quick discussion today,” Reeves said.

Senate Minority Chairman Raumesh Akbari said she had hoped the Legislature would do more than postpone bills until next year, considering the sacrifices lawmakers made to prepare for the special session.

“I don’t know if this is the beginning of things to come, but again I want us to do what the people sent us here to do,” said Akbari, a Memphis Democrat.

Democrats have been calling for restrictions on military-style weapons since the school shooter used an AR-15 to kill six people; tighter background checks on gun purchases; a red-flag law to enable confiscation of guns from mentally unstable people; and a gun storage requirement.

Bailey, chairman of the Commerce and Insurance Committee, pointed out his panel takes up “complex” bills that require “full consideration and due diligence.” He could not speak to whether his committee’s action would be indicative of other committees, and he pointed out Reeves’ bill is not dead, even though the sponsor said he plans to bring it back in 2024.

In a mid-day press conference, Rep. Harold Love, D-Nashville, pointed out the Legislature wouldn’t have been called to a special session if not for the shooting that claimed six lives at The Covenant School in Green Hills. He was disappointed that lawmakers are “milling around” in the halls for three or four days and passing only a handful of bills that could have been taken up in January.

Covenant Families Action Fund, a group made up of parents and family members from the school, issued a statement Tuesday saying it supports secure storage of guns, including a provision to give away gun locks, as well as tax exemptions.

“We still have a ways to go today,” said David Teague, father of a Covenant student. “We want to encourage sane and reasonable people to engage in the political process by voting in primaries, seeking office, and supporting those who want to focus on solutions, and not foster anger and division.”


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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 and Best Single Feature from the Tennessee Press Association.