Trio of Republican lawmakers demand TN governor cancel special session on "red flag" proposal

(Joe Rondone/The Commercial Appeal via AP, Pool)

Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee’s push for a “temporary mental health restraining order” is generating growing pushback from some Republican lawmakers, who are now calling on the governor to rescind his announced special session on public safety and a legislative response to the Covenant School shootings in Nashville.

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That special session is scheduled to kick off in mid-August, but Rep. Bryan Richey is circulating an open letter to Lee calling the session “an expensive, disruptive, futile, and counterproductive publicity stunt”, and at least two of his colleagues have signed on to the letter in hopes of convincing Lee to back off his attempt to enshrine a “red flag”-style gun seizure bill into law.

“Summoning legislators to Nashville to enact an unconstitutional ‘red flag’ law will not, as you suggest, ‘strengthen public safety and preserve constitutional rights,” Richey said in the letter. “To the contrary, the General Assembly adamantly opposes and has refused to enact measures that violate Tennesseans’ Second Amendment rights, whether styled ‘order of protection’ legislation or any other euphemism.”

… “Accordingly, your proposed special session, apparently calculated to pressure legislators to pass such a law, strikes us as an expensive, disruptive, futile, and counterproductive publicity stunt. The Covenant tragedy would not have been averted by a ‘red flag’ law in any event,” the letter says. “Your proposed special session is a solution in search of a problem. We can strengthen our criminal penalties and protect our people at any time. It does not require a special session, a session that will be a political event to put pressure on conservative Republicans to grow government and ignore the will of their constituents in service to the national woke mob that will descend on the Capitol. Press reports indicate that left-wing activists are planning to use the proposed special session to stage disruptive protests that will make the ‘Tennessee Three’ circus look like a dress rehearsal. Heavy security will be necessary to protect legislators from unruly agitators. Why would you want to provide a platform for such political theatre?”

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While the lawmakers acknowledge that as governor Lee has the authority to bring legislators back for a special session, Richey’s letter states that it’s “wholly inappropriate to do so when the legislature, which has a majority of Members of the same political party as the governor, has voted to adjourn,” adding “there is no emergency, declared or otherwise, that justifies calling us back to work in August.”

The reason is a series of policy proposals that we, as a legislative body, deliberately -and prudently- chose to reject this session. If interparty comity is being put aside to pressure fellow Republicans to embrace gun control measures, we still have a remaining duty to demand respect for the separation of powers. The governor has already proposed and we have already disposed. Hopefully in January we can continue our work together to make Tennessee safe, prosperous, and free.

Three signatories isn’t going to be enough to sway Lee, but if a majority of the GOP caucus in the House and/or Senate sign on to Richey’s letter that could have an impact. But if Lee insists on moving forward, Republicans can always take a page from the playbook of their counterparts in Virginia. In 2019 then-governor Ralph Northam called a special session on gun control, but the Republican majority simply gaveled in the session and almost immediately adjourned without passing any new anti-gun legislation.

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In a news conference afterward, Kirk Cox, the Republican speaker of the House, called the session “just an election year stunt.”

On Tuesday, he and Thomas K. Norment Jr., the Republican Senate majority leader, sent an open letter asking the Virginia State Crime Commission, which studies and makes recommendations on criminal justice matters, to examine the shooting in Virginia Beach, in which 12 were killed at a municipal building, and to review any new legislation proposed.

They asked the commission to present a report on Nov. 12 — a week after the elections — after which the legislature would reconvene to consider what to do next.

Republican leaders compared this approach to the one taken by Tim Kaine, the former Democratic governor of Virginia and now a United States senator, who in 2007 convened a panel to study and make recommendations after the shootings at Virginia Tech, among the deadliest ever on a school campus.

But this was not just a partisan disagreement about process. Republicans said the proposals that were most effective need not touch guns.

“Democrats have exclusively focused on gun control bills during this special session,” Mr. Cox said at the news conference, adding that he fundamentally disagreed with that. “There is no focus on mental health or punishing criminals for the crimes they commit.”

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To be fair, Democrats used the special session to hammer Republicans for their supposed unwillingness to “do something” on guns in the 2019 elections, and managed to take complete control of the General Assembly in November of that year. But after ramming through a half-dozen gun control measures and narrowly rejecting a sweeping gun ban bill, Democrats were soundly defeated in 2021. Republicans not only ran the table on all statewide elections, but recaptured control of the House of Delegates as well, in large part because rural voters and gun owners turned out in large numbers to thwart their anti-gun agenda for at least four years.

Lee may be worried about the political price of not enacting a gun control measure in response to the Covenant School shooting, but he should be just as concerned about the backlash to any attempt to infringe on the fundamental right to keep and bear arms. Tennessee isn’t as purple in its politics as Virginia is, but by embracing a gun-centric approach to addressing dangerous individuals, Lee is giving gun owners a reason to vote out incumbent lawmakers during next year’s primaries in favor of candidates who’ll actually stand firm on the Second Amendment. Lee himself is term-limited, so he doesn’t have to worry about someone challenging him in 2026, but his desire for a red flag law by another name is already sowing chaos in the Republican caucus, and its only going to get worse if he continues down gun control’s dead end road.

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