Can Tennessee's governor pull a "red flag" rabbit out of his hat?

Can Tennessee's governor pull a "red flag" rabbit out of his hat?
(John Huff /Foster's Daily Democrat via AP)

After months of behind-the-scenes lobbying, Gov. Bill Lee’s special session called in response to the Covenant School killings will kick off tomorrow. The governor’s list of approved topics precludes lawmakers from debating things like a ban on modern sporting rifles or raising the age to purchase or possess a firearm, gun control is still going to be at the center of debate outside the statehouse chambers. Second Amendment advocates and opponents are headed to Nashville to weigh in with their own demands, while the governor will be trying to twist arms and cobble together enough votes to adopt his version of a red flag law.


It would appear the governor has his work cut out for him, and many local media outlets are already adopting the position that the special session isn’t likely to lead to “meaningful reform”. With Democrats ticked off that their anti-gun agenda isn’t likely to receive a hearing and many Republicans equally as annoyed at the fact that the special session is taking place at all, Lee is looking like the biggest loser of the session before it’s even gaveled in.

Lee frequently met privately with lawmakers and occasionally told media he still had hopes for the proposal.

But at public appearances, he didn’t mention it. Even at a friendly Nashville Rotary event in June, where the opening prayer touched on gun violence, he sidestepped the issue in prepared remarks.

It’s a move that has baffled some advocates in the state, and some political observers, as Lee has now called back reluctant Republican lawmakers with little to show for his original goal, even as he continues to take criticism on his right flank from pugilistic gun rights groups decrying Lee’s supposed “gun control agenda,” despite Lee offering zero gun-specific administrative bills.

“If this is important, then you campaign on it. You talk about it. You go to the chambers of commerce, you go to the Rotary Clubs, you go to the Grand Divisions and talk to people about why this should happen,” said Daryl Carter, a political historian and associate dean at East Tennessee State University.

Vanderbilt University Poll co-director John Geer said Lee is working within the confines of Tennessee’s “realities,” that the General Assembly can wield tremendous power and even the Tennessee Republican Party executive committee was pushing back on a special session.

“To Lee’s credit, he’s called the special session,” Geer said. “It’s not as explicitly about gun reform as many in the state would like, but you have to give him credit for doing this because there’s a lot of opposition. I think he’s going to force some action; exactly what kind of bills come out isn’t clear.”


It doesn’t look like Lee’s in a position to force any action at all, though I suspect that many lawmakers who are part of the Republican supermajority would be willing to throw him a bone and pass legislation dealing with mental health and/or the criminal justice system so that the special session isn’t seen as a complete waste of time. And with dozens of bills expected to be quickly introduced and debated over the course of the session, there’s plenty of opportunity for legislative mischief to be played. As the Tennessee Firearms Association’s John Harris warned on a recent episode of Bearing Arms’ Cam & Co, until the session has been gaveled to a close gun owners are going to have to keep close watch over the legislature’s activities, and this is just a preview of a larger fight over the state’s gun laws that will play out in the regular session beginning next January.

Still, I doubt that Lee’s going to be able to pull a “red flag” rabbit out of his hat once the session gets underway, even though that was the original purpose of the session when he announced his plans in April. Many Republican legislators have been vocally opposed to the governor’s proposed “temporary mental health order of protection”, and Lee didn’t even include his proposal in the list of bills he included in his administrative package for the session; a clear sign that he doesn’t have the votes to approve the measure… at least not yet.


From a political perspective, Lee’s demand for a special session was a big mistake, but once he’d made the call he couldn’t back down even in the face of opposition from his own party without looking even weaker than he already does. Lee did at least try to do Republican lawmakers a favor by limiting the topics up for discussion during the session, but the narrative from Democrats and their allies in the media going forward is still going to be that the GOP supermajority cares more about protecting guns than school children.

As appealing as gaveling in and quickly gaveling out might be, Republican lawmakers instead need to put substantive proposals on the table that will address violent and dangerous individuals who pose a threat to the public without targeting lawful citizens exercising a fundamental civil right. It would have been better to do that during the course of a regular session, but unfortunately, Lee’s political miscalculation has taken that option off the table while giving the anti-gunners a platform to spout their vitriolic lies and false promises of safety.

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