TN special session still shrouded in secrecy

TN special session still shrouded in secrecy

With the start of Tennessee’s special session in response to the Covenant School shootings less than three weeks away now, voters and constituents should be taking a close look at the slate of bills expected to be debated when lawmakers return to Nashville on August 21st. Instead, they’re still largely in the dark as Gov. Bill Lee and lawmakers remain hush-hush over the details of what, exactly will be proposed.

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Instead, the governor continues to paint with a very broad brush as we get closer to the start of the expected session, offering vague remarks about the scope of the session while keeping residents guessing about what to expect.

Still facing challenges from Republican leaders, Gov. Bill Lee confirmed he will make an official call for a special session and sponsor several bills, including one he floated this spring dealing with extreme risk orders of protection.

Yet just four months after a mass shooting at The Covenant School in Green Hills, Lee is hitting roadblocks set up by his own party and Senate Majority Leader Jack Johnson, who continues to say he will not support the governor’s order of protection bill.

Lee said recently he also plans to push legislation on juvenile justice, mental health and violent crime and noted that lawmakers will back dozens of bills during the special session. He declined to give more details.

“Tennessee will be a safer state as a result of the efforts of the legislation and the legislators who are engaged in the process of this special session on public safety,” Lee said.

Johnson, who typically sponsors the governor’s bills as a result of his leadership position, reiterated his stance this week against Lee’s proposed extreme order of protection plan, even though it contains a provision for due process before an unstable person’s guns can be taken. Johnson said in a statement he does not support “red flag laws” and never has. The governor has shied away from the term “red flag law.”

“Should the governor choose to introduce an ERPO during special session, I will not be the sponsor. Because the special session, itself, is controversial and lacks support in the Senate, this is a unique circumstance. Once the governor’s other proposals are finalized, I will review each one and consult with my Senate colleagues prior to agreeing to sponsor any administration bills,” Johnson said, responding to questions from the Tennessee Lookout.

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When exactly do the voters get to see these proposals? The special session is expected to take place at breakneck speed, with lawmakers hurriedly holding hearings and potentially moving bills to the floor of the House and Senate without public hearings where stakeholders can weigh in. It’s completely unacceptable that we’re two-and-a-half weeks away from the anticipated start date of August 21st and the governor is still refusing to provide details about what, exactly, he’s planning on pushing.

As we discussed last week, Lee’s been holding plenty of closed-door meetings with legislators as he tries to cobble together a coalition that can enshrine his proposed “temporary mental health restraining order” into law. Democrats, meanwhile, are already talking up their plans for gun control, though a Tuesday night meeting in Memphis didn’t exactly draw a packed house.

State Senate Minority Leader Raumesh Akbari, D-Memphis, told the roughly 50 people gathered Tuesday night at Riverside Missionary Baptist Church that she and the other legislators in attendance — including Rep. Karen Camper, Rep. Jesse Chism and Sen. London Lamar — would take ideas back to the statehouse. Multiple members of the Memphis Police Department also attended.

Akbari told those gathered that she believes Lee is open to solutions to gun violence and that she and other Democrats are trying to find “common ground” with Republican leadership.

“Gun reform is a bipartisan issue. It’s not red, it’s not blue, it’s not Democratic, it’s not Republican,” Akbari said, sharing data about how the vast majority of Tennesseans support measures like background checks and safe storage.

Legislators are working on legislation including preemption laws so local governments can pass gun restrictions when the state does not, a blended sentencing structure allowing the juvenile system to have authority over young adults up to around 22 or 23 years old and to provide additional support for children exiting the justice system, Akbari said.

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Given the growing opposition among Republican rank-and-file legislators as well as pushback to Lee’s version of a “red flag” bill on the part of GOP leaders like Johnson, I’d like to believe that the Democrats’ anti-gun proposals aren’t going anywhere, but who knows what deals may be reached in secret ahead of the start of the session.

I’m concerned about what’s being said and done behind closed doors, but I’m also bothered by those doors being closed to begin with. The Tennessee Firearms Association has blasted the governor for his “Communist style secret meetings” and is warning members not to “trust anything said about will or might happen or not happen at the Special Session particularly if the proposed legislation is not publicly made available so everyone can see it, digest it and comment on it at least 2-3 weeks prior to the Special Session,” which is sound advice, especially now that we’re less than three weeks out and no lawmaker seems ready or willing to lay their cards on the table.

According to the TFA, the list of those legislators who’ve expressed public opposition to Lee’s proposal dwarfs those who’ve chimed in with support for what Lee proposed back in April, but as TFA executive director John Harris points out, “just because a Legislator is categorized in one area relative to the Governor’s April 2023 bill language does not mean that they would not support something that was slightly different even if effectively the same.” The state’s Second Amendment advocates need to be on guard, but they also need be engaged; contacting their own representative and senators and letting them know that a vote for gun control this summer means a primary vote against them next spring.

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