Stockard on the Stump: Can we please do away with video replay?
Rep. Justin Pearson, D-Memphis, far left, and House Majority Leader William Lamberth, R-Portland, exchange words — and looks — at the conclusion of the August 2023 special legislative session. (Photo: John Partipilo)
After months of wailing and gnashing of teeth, the governor’s special session on public safety came down to the eternal question: Block or charge? It’s the toughest call in basketball.
Forget about the “Mexican standoff” between the House and Senate and Republican lawmakers’ refusal to enact Gov. Bill Lee’s extreme risk order of protection bill, which was about the only proposal that might derail a mass shooting. Nothing about guns.
It all boiled down to whether House Speaker Cameron Sexton lowered a shoulder and charged Rep. Justin Pearson or whether the Memphis lawmaker flopped when he was bumped.
After an [un]official review — both say video backed up their claims — the evidence appears to be inconclusive.
Pearson says Sexton hit him with a shoulder. Sexton says his security guard pushed him from behind and caused him to bump into Pearson, who was holding a sign near the Speaker’s dais as Sexton left the House.
(It wasn’t quite as vicious, and we’ll give Sexton the benefit of the doubt as to whether he meant to lower the shoulder. Surely, he’s not dumb enough to put a gubernatorial run at risk to hit Pearson, who weighs all of 150 with bowling balls in each hand. Still, it reminds me of the body blows Shaq used to dole out to Vlade Divac, who eventually had no choice but to fall on the floor.)
The subsequent swarm — preceded by an effort to bring a no-confidence vote in Sexton — proved a fitting end to a special session that yielded no new laws that could avert a deadly shooting such as the one that left The Covenant School reeling after three adults and three 9-year-olds were gunned down.
Sure, the House and Senate agreed to spend about $110 million to outfit state universities with new security, fund community mental health agencies, add school safety officers to charter schools and hire and retain state mental health workers.
But that was merely a shell game senators and representatives played with state funds to bring the special session to a merciful end.
Meanwhile, Sexton’s strategies for controlling the chamber continued to go awry, further proof he needs better advice. Instead of bringing activist lawmakers into the fold, the House restricted public access and put more limits on debate, yet another display of political paranoia.
Word was only four bills would be passed when the session started. None were consequential, and all could have waited until January.
Lt. Gov. Randy McNally pointed out afterward that Sen. Ferrell Haile’s bill cracking down on threats of mass violence would have been the most effective. It would have been followed by a measure requiring health-care workers to report threats.
Republican senators weren’t prepared to go for umpteen bills the House passed, saying they needed more time to vet them. We’ll find out in January if those claims are legit.
Haile, R-Gallatin, after meeting several times with Covenant parents, says he will bring those back next year. “I’m very empathetic of the situation they find themselves in,” he says.
Much of the blame for this wacky session, though, has to fall on the governor.
Because his wife was friends with the Covenant victims, he wanted to “do something” after the shooting.
But when his extreme risk order of protection bill fell flat in April, he went ahead and called a special session, then waited until the bitter end of the summer to set the limits, which allowed for just about everything except another flavor of craft beer.
Thus, lawmakers filed more than a hundred bills, and Speaker Sexton pushed two juvenile sentencing measures to crack down on gun thefts while House Majority Leader William Lamberth sought a measure backed by some Covenant parents to make autopsy reports on minors exempt from the public records act (potentially a terrible bill for any child in state custody).
Gun safety reform was never a factor, and just about everyone knew that going into the deal.
House Republican Caucus Chairman Jeremy Faison reiterated it, saying outside of Memphis and Nashville, people don’t want bans on AR-15s or a new order of protection law that allows guns to be confiscated, even for unstable people.
“None of my counties asked me to pass a red-flag law,” Faison says.
Democrats, who walked out of a Monday session in protest of the House’s silencing rules (which didn’t do much to bring calm, especially at the end), were unimpressed with the results.
House Minority Leader Karen Camper says Democrats went to Nashville “with the hopes” of making Tennessee safer but didn’t.
“I think there was too much inaction,” says Camper, a Memphis mayoral candidate, contending the session turned into a battle of one-upmanship between House and Senate leadership. “Unfortunately, and the people are suffering because of it. You can see the outrage from the people, you can see their reaction to it. You can see the feelings of hurt.”
Parent groups from Covenant largely maintained their cool but despite hiring high-powered lobbyists couldn’t make major gains.
As for the charge-block call? No whistle was blown, no ref was pantsed, “the courtroom was adjourned. No verdict was returned.”
In a lot of ways, it felt like we were a lot of free-range chickens lacking focus.
– Rep. Brent Taylor, R-Memphis, on the special legislative session
Democratic Rep. Caleb Hemmer, a proponent of stronger gun storage laws, says he’s going to donate his special session per diem to the nonprofit groups, Voices for a Safer Tennessee and Rise and Shine TN.
They will receive $250 each after pushing for what he considers common-sense gun safety laws.
“My Democratic colleagues and I returned to the Capitol with the goal of fighting for Emergency Risk Protection Orders, truly significant investments in access to mental healthcare, and strong legislation that would address Tennessee’s problems with secure storage and gun theft but instead we gaveled out without passing anything substantive,” says Hemmer, a Nashville Democrat.
Hemmer nearly worked out a deal with Faison last spring to pass a gun storage bill encouraging people to lock up weapons if they leave them in vehicles. Instead, the Legislature wants to spend $1.1 million on sales tax breaks for gun safes and gun locks, along with a public service campaign to let people know they can get one of thousands of leftover locks from the state’s failed giveaway. This, even though locks already come with weapons when you buy one.
Democrats point out that since the Legislature passed the guns-in-trunks law more than a decade ago, then followed up with the idiotic permit-less carry law two years ago, gun thefts have escalated. Maybe Tennessee needs some “evidence-based” statistics to show why gun violence is the leading cause of child thefts in the state. And by the way, the next time I hear that term, I’m going to jump off the Tennessee Tower — well, maybe out a ground floor window anyway.
What about Opie?
Gov. Lee spent Monday criss-crossing the state on a technology center tour, leaving some lawmakers to wonder if he had hunkered down for an Andy Griffith Show marathon.
State Sen. Brent Taylor told a Memphis TV station he wondered whether Sheriff Andy Taylor had vacated Mayberry and left Barney Fife in charge.
“In a lot of ways, it felt like we were a lot of free-range chickens lacking focus,” mainly because of a vacuum of leadership at the top, says Taylor, a Memphis Republican. “But it all came together (Tuesday), and we worked out an agreement and got it done.”
“Where have you gone Joe Dimaggio?”
Asked if he could have been a strong leader during the session, Lee claims he “worked hard” with lawmakers “to move the ball forward” meeting with reps at the Capitol.
OK, now we’re mixing metaphors between baseball and football.
“We brought this to a conclusion that moved our state forward and put us in a place to continue to move forward,” Lee says. He finally spoke publicly Tuesday about an hour after adjournment.
On the other hand, the governor says he won’t bring back the order of protection bill, which even some Republicans believe makes sense.
The governor called the special session “important, difficult and hopeful” and contends it should be celebrated. Then again, it was his “extraordinary” gathering. We wouldn’t expect him to admit failure.
“Do you remember back in 1966”*
Folks got into a tizzy Monday when it was reported the governor’s office floated 12 bills the House and Senate could use to reach a compromise and end their stalemate.
The only problem was that the Senate refused to blink as leaders said they hadn’t received any communication on the 12 options from Lee’s office. He’d initially put only a handful of items in his legislative package.
In fact, Lt. Gov. McNally says they found out about the supposed bills on Twitter.
Unfortunately, they don’t call it Twitter anymore, which means he “heard it on the X.”
“Country Jesus hillbilly blues that’s where I got my licks.”
(* Credit to ZZ Top.)
GET THE MORNING HEADLINES DELIVERED TO YOUR INBOX
Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.