TN Governor's push for "red flag" law faltering as GOP lawmaker says he's working with NRA on an alternative

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

Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee still hasn’t officially called lawmakers back for a special session later this summer, though the governor maintains he’ll issue that proclamation as we get closer to the anticipated start date of August 21st. But while Lee is still lobbying legislators to adopt his “temporary mental health order of protection,” he’s also running into a lot of resistance, and at this point I don’t think he’s got the votes, especially with the prospect of competing legislation being laid on the table.


A key Republican senator is planning an alternative to Gov. Bill Lee’s proposed extreme risk protection order bill, a measure hitting a wall as the Legislature approaches an Aug. 21 special session.

Sen. Ferrell Haile, R-Gallatin, said Tuesday he is working with the National Rifle Association on legislation dealing with mental health in response to the mass shooting at The Covenant School in Green Hills where six people were killed, including three 9-year-olds.

Haile declined to provide specifics but said, “I think we have threaded the needle.”

Haile, the Senate speaker pro tem, said he can’t support Lee’s proposed extreme risk protection order or “red-flag” bill, a measure that could lead to the confiscation of weapons, because it doesn’t go far enough in providing the constitutional right of due process.

Lee floated the idea in April but couldn’t draw enough support for a House or Senate sponsor before the General Assembly adjourned the regular session.

The National Rifle Association is calling for legislation, Haile said, that will “take care of the individual, take them out of the equation, not take everybody else’s gun out of the equation that’s not involved in this, and that’s protecting the Second Amendment.”

Haile said he isn’t working directly with the NRA but is discussing the matter with the organization and “listening to their requests” or public comments.


Haile told the Tennessee Lookout that “doing nothing is not an option,” but until we see some specifics on his own proposal it’s impossible to judge if it’s any better than Lee’s “temporary mental health order of protection,” which itself seeks to thread the needle in terms of protecting due process and the Second Amendment rights of citizens alongside public safety.

Under Lee’s suggested legislation, it would be up to law enforcement to request the order of protection, which would be issued by a judge only after a mental health evaluation has taken place. There are no ex parte hearings in Lee’s proposal; instead, the hearing takes place 3-to-5 days after a law enforcement agency has applied for an order, and the subject of the petition can request a delay for up to 10 days. Lee’s proposal also provides for an attorney to be appointed to represent the respondent, which is another feature lacking in the vast majority of “red flag” laws around the country.

I’m very curious to see what Haile’s proposal looks like when it’s finally unveiled, but based on his description it sounds like it could be focused on bolstering the state’s existing civil commitment law; something Lee has already been arguing against.


The Associated Press reported Lee’s office accused the NRA of trying to invoke involuntary commitment laws “to round up mentally ill people and deprive them of other liberties,” based on documents obtained in a public records request. Previously, the governor had the NRA’s support in his push for a permit-less carry law.

Two weeks ago, Lee said he is talking to lawmakers and sticking with his original proposal, which contains a process for a due process hearing to confiscate weapons from people considered a risk to themselves and others.

Perhaps an involuntary commitment shouldn’t lead to a lifetime loss of Second Amendment rights, but instead carry the same temporary prohibition that “red flag” laws do. That would help ensure that dangerous individuals get the treatment that they need, but also allow for their rights to be restored when they no longer pose a threat to themselves or others.

One of the problems, however, is Tennessee’s lack of inpatient mental health beds. As it is, those subject to the civil commitment laws are often forced to wait for days before space opens up, and that raises a whole other set of due process concerns. One Tennessee lawmaker attempted to shine a spotlight on the shortage by introducing legislation that would require psychiatric hospitals to issue daily updates on how many beds are available, but the bill was put on hold in the state House earlier this year.


Tennessee has 23 hospitals licensed to treat mental health problems with 2,126 beds, 1,765 of which are staffed, according to the Department of Health.

Mental health advocates contend that updating the tracking system takes about two minutes a day. They said many of the state’s psychiatric hospitals are filling out the registry daily but that many go weeks and even years without providing updates.

The state’s four mental health hospitals update the portal daily, officials say.

Suzanne Blackwood, a licensed professional counselor and director of the Hope Center of Cannon County in Woodbury, told lawmakers this year the bill is designed to deal with the problem of emergency room “boarding” in which patients with psychiatric problems are having to spend days and weeks in the emergency room because physicians can’t find a psychiatric hospital to take them.

“It’s not OK,” Blackwood said. “This is happening throughout Tennessee. This is happening nationwide. It’s even happening internationally.”

Maybe that should be the subject of Lee’s special session instead of gun control, especially if the votes aren’t there for the governor’s proposal. With Lee still stumping for his version of a “red flag” law, that doesn’t seem likely, but that could change if he’s unable to convince Republicans to go along between now and August 21st. If lawmakers are insistent on “doing something”, fixing the state’s mental health shortage would be a much better place to start than slapping a “red flag” law (by any name) on the books.


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