What Tennessee's governor doesn't get about "red flag" laws

Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee has yet to announce when he’ll be calling lawmakers back to the state capitol for a special session on “gun reform and public safety”, but the Republican is already stumping for his version of a “red flag” law in the hopes of overcoming opposition from GOP legislators and many Second Amendment advocates.

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On Monday Lee was asked what he hopes to see from the special session, and the governor once again floated his idea of a “temporary mental health restraining order”; i.e. a “red flag” law.

“What we plan to do is work together with the General Assembly to find a way that will in fact protect the broader public, that will protect the rights of Tennesseans,” Lee told reporters in Chattanooga, according to WKRN. “We believe we can do that.”

Speaking with media at an event to sign the “Forever Homes Act,” which aims to expedite adoptions and encourage them over abortions, Lee discussed what he expects from the special legislative session since last Friday’s announcement. “There needs to be a way to separate those that are a danger to others and to themselves from access to weapons and protect the rights — and particularly the Second Amendment rights of Tennesseans,” Lee said.

I don’t think Lee is some anti-gun commie in disguise who’s just been waiting for the opportune moment to strong-arm Republicans into adopting a gun confiscation measure. This is the same governor who signed constitutional carry into law, after all, and he’s got a good track record when it comes to supporting the right to keep and bear arms. I think Lee’s trying to respond to public pressure to “do something” in the wake of the Covenant School shootings without offending his base of supporters, but while I respect the fact that he’s called for a “red flag” law that does not allow for ex parte hearings and requires the subject of a petition to have access to an attorney, there’s still a fundamental flaw in his plan.

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The governor spoke of finding a way to “separate those that are a danger to others and themselves from access to weapons,” but the truth is that if someone truly poses a threat to themselves or other people then simply blocking them from legally possessing a firearm isn’t going to achieve his goal. The subject of a “temporary mental health restraining order” could still pick up a butcher knife, gasoline or matches, car keys, or any number of items that could be used as a weapon. The issue is the supposedly dangerous person, not any guns that they might own.

To that end, Lee would be better off calling for an overhaul of the state’s criminal justice and mental health systems, though that’s a far more complicated and costly issue than passing a “red flag” law and claiming that the issue has been addressed. Still, that’s a more substantive approach to dealing with dangerous individuals, and one that would find more favor with Republicans around the state than his proposal. Already this week Knox County commissioners have rejected a resolution backing Lee’s call for a temporary mental health restraining order, and more opposition is likely to emerge as details of the legislation become available.

I respect that what Lee has outlined offers more due process protections than the vast majority of “red flag” laws that are already in place, but that doesn’t change the fact that the underlying premise is still about taking guns away instead of treating the “dangerousness” of the individual in question. Any gun-centric approach to addressing mental illness or criminal behavior should be non-starter for Tennessee lawmakers. That doesn’t mean they don’t have to sit on their hands and do nothing, but if they’re going to “do something” it should be targeted at dangerous individuals themselves and not any inanimate objects they might own.

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