Grieving Governor’s Moderate Gun Proposal Is Spurned by G.O.P. Allies

When Gov. Bill Lee of Tennessee began a push in April to address public safety, his family was grieving the loss of two close friends, both educators killed in a mass shooting at a Nashville Christian school.

His call for millions of dollars to harden school security was embraced by Republicans in the legislature, who flanked him during a formal announcement.

But days later, when Mr. Lee, a Republican, decided to go further and ask for an order of protection law that could temporarily restrict an individual’s access to firearms, he stood alone for the announcement. The legislature would wrap up its work by the end of the month without taking a vote to pass it.

Now, Mr. Lee has summoned lawmakers back to Nashville on Monday for a special session on public safety that could include consideration of a limited version of the law. But without the support of most in his own party, that measure appears, once again, destined for failure, underscoring the power dynamics of a Republican supermajority driven by a right-wing base hardened against any potential infringement on gun ownership.

“There’s issues that, really, the governor might have an opinion on, but the majority of the legislature has another opinion,” said Lt. Gov. Randy McNally, one of the few Republican lawmakers to openly back Mr. Lee’s proposal. He added, “It just sometimes takes time, and sometimes won’t happen.”

In the lead up to the special session, Mr. Lee and senior Republicans have instead prioritized legislation that focuses on shoring up mental health resources and policy, toughening criminal penalties for threats of mass violence, targeting juvenile crime and incentivizing the safe storage of firearms.

Some experts have warned that the supermajority’s stance leaves open the possibility that the legislature’s work will do little to stem the toll of gun violence, the leading cause of death for American children, and may exacerbate existing inequalities in the state.

“We need to get away from asking ourselves if anything is going to be good enough and really ask ourselves if the policies that are being put forward are going to be effective, and if they will not be harmful to vulnerable communities,” said Jen Pauliukonis, the director of policy and programming at the Center for Gun Violence Solutions at Johns Hopkins University.

The March 27 shooting at the Covenant School devastated Nashville, leaving three 9-year-old students and three adults dead. The assailant legally purchased seven firearms and had been under treatment for an emotional disorder before opening fire in the school. (The shooting remains under investigation.)

The painfully familiar tragedy prompted days of impassioned gun control protests, as thousands of students, parents and teachers demanded that Republicans take substantial steps to restrict access to guns in the state.

But by the end of April, the Republican supermajority had expelled two young Black Democrats for leading a protest from the House floor — both have since won re-election — and punted any legislative action dealing directly with firearm access.

Mr. Lee quickly said he would ask the legislature to return to tackle public safety, even as his central proposal, a limited version of a “red flag law” that could allow a judge to temporarily confiscate weapons from people determined to be a possible threat to themselves or others, was vilified by Republicans as an assault on constitutional rights.

This is not the first time Mr. Lee’s policy agenda has been shaped by personal loss and a deep-rooted Christian faith: In his memoir and on the campaign trail, he has described the trauma and recovery within his family after the sudden death of his first wife in a horseback-riding accident.

In his first Republican primary, he slipped past a bitter battle between more established politicians and then continued to lean on his personal experiences and appeal as an outside businessman to clinch his first political office and the governor’s mansion.

Unlike some of his predecessors, Mr. Lee has maintained a low profile, signing off on several far-right priorities with little fanfare or publicity. Before the Covenant shooting, he had championed gun rights, including a law allowing people 21 and older to carry handguns without a permit in public.

“I’m one who believes that if we focus on what we believe can get done, if we focus on what we all can agree upon, then we will get something done that will make our state safer,” he told reporters this month.

But some observers applauded Mr. Lee for ignoring complaints from within his party and pushing ahead with the special session.

“We didn’t ask for this moment, but we know the special session can bring about much-needed change as we head into another school year,” said Kramer Schmidt, one of several Covenant School parents who praised Mr. Lee for following through.

Though his limited gun control measure has support outside the legislature — a Vanderbilt University poll this summer showed that about three-quarters of registered voters were in favor of a red-flag law — most elections in Tennessee are decided in the Republican primaries.

And the state’s conservative bent and intense gerrymandering have given the far-right portion of the electorate outsize influence.

“Everybody wants to keep focusing on the gun, but there’s a lot of other things out there that we think that we should do and can do that would be very beneficial,” House Speaker Cameron Sexton said in an interview.

“The issue is the person,” he added. “A lot of times we want to focus on the weapon, but we need to focus on the person.”

John Harris, the executive director of the Tennessee Firearms Association, said Mr. Lee had decided to “throw the entire pan of spaghetti up on the wall, and let’s see what sticks.”

“Governor Lee has made no effort, publicly or otherwise, we’re aware of to try to show that what he’s proposing meets the standard that the Supreme Court has established, at least with respect to the Second Amendment proposals,” he said.

Democrats said they would introduce their own legislation, including a tougher order of protection law. None of their measures are likely to receive serious consideration.

“He’s put himself in a corner,” Representative John Ray Clemmons of Nashville, the chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, said of the governor.

Like several other Democrats, Mr. Clemmons blamed far-right Republicans for pressuring the legislature to veer away from gun control.

“Not only do they not care enough to actually have an adult conversation about it, clearly, they’re going to try to use it as a tool or a vehicle to sneak through a whole bunch of other crappy stuff in three days,” he said.

Kitty Bennett contributed research.

Emily Cochrane is a national correspondent covering the American South, based in Nashville. She was previously a congressional correspondent in Washington, chronicling the annual debate over government funding and economic legislation. More about Emily Cochrane

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