Tennessee governor calls lawmakers back to address guns, public safety after school shooting

A man in a business suit speaks at a podium with the U.S. flag in the background.
Gov. Bill Lee has called for a gun law in Tennessee aimed at people experiencing a mental health crisis. Lee spoke with reporters April 11 after visiting with officers at a police precinct that responded when a shooter killed three children and three adults at a Nashville school on March 27, 2023. (Marta W. Aldrich / Chalkbeat)

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Defying Tennessee’s powerful gun lobby, Gov. Bill Lee said Tuesday he’s calling lawmakers back to the state Capitol on Aug. 21 to take up public safety proposals after a shooter killed three children and three adults at a Nashville school this spring.

The Republican governor, whose wife knew several of the adult victims at the private church campus known as The Covenant School, wants legislators in one of the nation’s most gun-friendly states to pass a law to keep firearms out of the hands of people who could hurt themselves or others. 

The 28-year-old shooter at The Covenant School was shot and killed by police on the campus after using legally purchased firearms in the March 27 attack. Authorities later said the shooter was seeing a doctor for an “emotional disorder.”

In calling for a law allowing “temporary mental health orders of protection,” Lee has tried to satisfy gun rights advocates who view any restrictions as an infringement of Second Amendment rights.

“As our nation faces evolving public safety threats, Tennessee remains vigilant and is taking continued action to protect communities while preserving the constitutional rights of law-abiding citizens,” Lee said in a statement.

But Democrats said Lee’s official proclamation doesn’t go far enough to try to address the proliferation of guns across Tennessee.

“For such a broad call, this proclamation somehow manages to miss the target,” said Rep. John Ray Clemmons of Nashville, who chairs the House Democratic Caucus.

Lee’s proclamation is important because it sets the legal parameters for what they can and can’t take up.

The list of what’s fair game is long and includes mental health resources, providers, and related Medicaid coverage; school safety policies; measures encouraging safe storage of firearms; and timely law enforcement access to criminal and juvenile records, as well as to records for individuals “who are subject to mental health commitment.”

It also includes stalking offenses, reports from the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation regarding human trafficking, the structure or operations of state or local courts, and limiting the circumstances in which juvenile records may be expunged.

The call comes after the governor met privately this summer with small groups of lawmakers to talk through his proposal and their ideas for quelling gun violence and increasing school safety in hopes of eventually passing meaningful legislation. 

Then just a week ago, police in Memphis shot a man suspected of trying to enter a Jewish school with a gun.

Meanwhile, advocates on both sides of the gun debate have pressed Lee to pursue or abandon the special session. 

Last weekend, the state’s Republican executive committee adopted a resolution encouraging Lee to back off, while groups like the National Rifle Association and the National Association for Gun Rights have urged legislators to oppose any gun control measures. 

“We expect Tennessee Republicans to stand firm in their defense of the Second Amendment and vote to adjourn the special session upon its start in August,” Dudley Brown, president of the gun rights association, said last month.

On the other side, numerous gun control advocates have launched campaigns promoting firearm safety legislation. A Democratic-backed bus tour of the state kicks off Wednesday in Memphis to talk with Tennesseans about gun violence. Everytown for Gun Safety is spending $100,000 on digital ads, while Voices for a Safer Tennessee released a video message featuring the mother of Evelyn Diekhaus, one of the victims, on what would have been her 10th birthday.

“What’s more important?” asked Katy Dieckhaus, in her emotional plea for “responsible firearm safety laws that will work toward protecting our children and their right to life.”

The shooting at Covenant happened as lawmakers were meeting in their regular session, sparking daily mass demonstrations at the Capitol by Tennesseans protesting loose gun laws, especially those allowing easy access to military-style semiautomatic weapons. 

Lawmakers responded by passing the governor’s sweeping school safety plan, which pumped $230 million more into hardening public and private K-12 schools by hiring additional armed security guards, upgrading school buildings, and placing a homeland security agent in every Tennessee county, among other things.

But most of them rebuffed Lee’s proposal to pass a law to restrict gun access for people experiencing a mental health crisis. Instead, after a House vote to expel two Democratic representatives for the way they protested the failure to pursue significant gun reforms, the GOP-controlled legislature rushed to adjourn in May without revisiting those laws. Lee quickly vowed to call a special session on the matter.

The governor has lobbied for Tennessee to pass a law on “extreme risk protection orders” and has avoided references to a so-called red flag law, which he has described as a “toxic political label.” Nineteen states have such laws on the books, including Florida, which passed its version after 17 people were murdered in the 2018 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, despite numerous complaints to law enforcement about threatening statements by the 19-year-old gunman.

An extreme risk order allows courts to temporarily remove guns — typically for up to a year — from people deemed a threat to themselves or others. Family members or law enforcement often must petition a court for an order.

Soon after issuing his proclamation, Lee came under fire from both sides of the debate.

Senate Democratic Leader Raumesh Akbari of Memphis said the governor’s proclamation will prevent most gun safety reforms from being debated during the upcoming session.

“A promise to do something to stop future shootings was made to Covenant parents, but sadly this proclamation eliminates many paths forward,” Akbari said in a statement.

Victims in the Nashville shooting were students Evelyn Dieckhaus, Hallie Scruggs, and William Kinney, all age 9; and three school staff members: custodian Mike Hill and substitute teacher Cynthia Peak, both 61, and Katherine Koonce, 60, the head of the school. 

Marta Aldrich is a senior correspondent and covers the statehouse for Chalkbeat Tennessee. Contact her at maldrich@chalkbeat.org.

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