Lawmakers didn’t take up Gov. Bill Lee’s proposed “temporary mental health order of protection” during the special session he called earlier this year, but the idea (better known as a “red flag” law despite the governor’s insistence there’s a substantial difference) is sure to emerge again as Tennesse legislators begin pre-filing their bills for the 2024 session set to kick off in early January.
The big reason why Lee’s proposal never got a hearing during the special session is that a majority of legislators were opposed to the measure, no matter what the governor called it. And despite the Tennessean newspaper taking a sympathetic stance on the idea, there’s really no evidence that opposition has softened in the months since the special session took place.
… the shooting death of [Belmost college freshman Jillian] Ludwig and the suspect’s history of mental impairment have prompted a renewed call for a law that would prevent dangerous people from having guns.
But some leading Republican lawmakers, like House Majority Leader William Lamberth, R-Portland, support strengthening involuntary commitment laws over gun control or any red-flag law.
“Red flag laws are ineffective at preventing violence, but keeping dangerous criminals off the streets protects innocent people 100 percent of the time,” he said in a statement.
Lt. Gov. Randy McNally, however, said he would support an extreme risk protection law, noting that Ludwig’s case makes it clear that more work needs to be done on public safety.
“While I have consistently supported the mental health order of protection proposed by the governor, that idea has not been embraced by other members of my caucus, though I remain hopeful it will be one day,” said McNally, R-Oak Ridge. “This coming session I think you will see a continued focus on mental health and not any measure that would restrict the ability of law-abiding citizens to possess a firearm.”
Democrats say they’re determined to once again address the issue of red-flag laws in January.
Sen. Jeff Yarbro, D-Nashville, said expanding laws to civilly commit more mentally impaired people won’t solve the problem.
“We can’t simply commit everyone who lacks that mental capacity,” he said. “This should absolutely open the conversation back up to red-flag laws. If you don’t have some sort of process to have courts examine a person and remove their guns before they’ve committed a violent act, by definition you’re waiting until they do something violent.”
You can’t commit everyone who’s been ruled incompetent to stand trial on violent criminal charges because they have the mental capacity of a kindergartener? Why not? Not enough space in state-run mental health facilities?
Sounds to me like that is the problem lawmakers should be addressing, not looking for a way to strip someone of their ability to own a firearm due to their supposed dangerousness while leaving their underlying mental health issues unaddressed. Yarbro says he’s also working on a bill that would disqualify anyone found mentally incompetent from legally purchasing a gun, and while he may find bipartisan support for the idea it still doesn’t address the fundamental issue: people who are known to be mentally incompetent and accused of committing violent crimes should be institutionalized, not merely disarmed by the law and left to their own devices.
House Speaker Cameron Sexton appears to be taking a more focused approach that would provide a mental health evaluation for repeat offenders while adding more inpatient beds for individuals in an acute mental health crisis.
Speaker Sexton said he’s working closely with Nashville District Attorney General Glenn Funk on the involuntary commitment clause. Sexton said he believes there should be state-funded mental health evaluations for people who commit misdemeanors, especially repeat offenders.
“When you talk to DAs, there’s a lot of people who’re being rearrested, a lot of people who a lot of times, they need mental health evaluation,” said Sexton. “[Funk] thinks that will be very helpful to him and to his people and to his assistant DAs, as well as to the people who’re being charged.”
On a broader front, Sexton also suggested increasing mental health reimbursement rates in insurance plans and increasing the number of mental health hospital beds, specifically for juveniles and long-term patients. Right now, Sexton said there are 577 state beds, but he believes they need to add another 2,000 to meet demand.
To do that, Sexton said the state also needs to address the shortage of mental health professionals. He said they’re trying to add tuition reimbursement to attract more people to the field
If Tennessee has just 25 percent of the mental health beds it needs that’s a giant red flag all its own. Finding the funding to triple the capacity of the state-run system won’t be easy, but unlike Gov. Lee’s “temporary mental health order of protection” it would substantively address one of the major impediments to public safety in the state.
Of course, there’s no guarantee that Sexton’s proposal will fare any better than Lee’s version of a “red flag” law when legislators return to Nashville in early January, especially with some lawmakers warning of an existing hole in the state’s budget to the tune of more than $300-million. A “red flag” law would certainly be cheaper to implement than the desperately needed overhaul of the mental health system, but it would fail to adequately deal with truly dangerous individuals all while eroding the due process and Second Amendment rights of Tennesseans. There’s a much better way forward, but it won’t be cheap or easy.