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New York Times
22 Apr 2023

NextImg:Tennessee G.O.P. Cuts Session Short With No Action on Gun Control

NASHVILLE — Hundreds of students, parents and teachers marched to the Tennessee State Capitol, day after day, demanding a ban on assault weapons and action on gun control. Their calls were echoed by musicians like Amy Grant and Sheryl Crow, who trekked to the legislature to personally lobby lawmakers after a mass shooting at a Nashville Christian school.

Several faith leaders joined the effort, writing to Republican leaders to urge them to support a proposal that would help temporarily restrict access to guns for people found by a court to be a danger to themselves or others.

But on Friday, just under a month after the attack at the school, Republicans instead cut short the year’s legislative session and punted on any measure dealing explicitly with guns, capping a whirlwind three months of lawmaking that underscored the power of the far-right flank of the Republican Party in Tennessee and saw the brief expulsion of two Black Democratic lawmakers.

“It’s frustrating and motivating,” said Jamie Starnes, 37, who spent Friday morning protesting in the Capitol with a group of mothers, many of whom had never demonstrated in person until their friends and their children were traumatized by the shooting at the Covenant School that killed three adults and three 9-year-olds. “We’re not going anywhere,” she added.

Within two hours of the legislature’s hasty departure, the state’s Republican governor, Bill Lee, announced that he would summon lawmakers back for a special session to revisit the debate, with details expected in the coming weeks. Mr. Lee, whose wife lost a friend in the attack, had pushed the legislature to pass an order of protection law, which, in an effort to win conservative support, had become so limited in scope that some experts said it would not even qualify as the type of “red flag law” scorned by gun rights supporters.

“There is broad agreement that dangerous, unstable individuals who intend to harm themselves or others should not have access to weapons,” Mr. Lee said in a statement. “We also share a strong commitment to preserving Second Amendment rights, ensuring due process and addressing the heart of the problem with strengthened mental health resources.”

A memorial to the victims of the Covenant School shooting in Nashville.Credit...Jon Cherry for The New York Times

But it was clear as the legislature departed on Friday that any measure that would limit access to guns, even one as narrow as the proposal championed by Mr. Lee, would face steep odds with the Republican supermajority.

Republicans largely panned that proposal and argued that they were too far into the session to revamp the state budget and examine the ramifications of such a law. Instead, they highlighted passage of about $140 million to fund school resource police officers on public school campuses, another request from Mr. Lee.

Speaker Cameron Sexton suggested that Republicans would look elsewhere, having discussed other proposals that would “focus on the mental health aspect of this and just closing loopholes currently in the law.”

“Hopefully we’ll get another opportunity,” he added, speaking at a news conference Friday evening. “I also think it’s important once again to have these conversations outside of the Capitol with the public and let them have input on exactly how we should move forward.”

The calls for additional time and discussion, however, were a stark contrast in a session in which the assembly’s supermajority also significantly undermined the autonomy of the state’s largest Democratic-leaning cities and cut back the rights of L.G.B.T.Q. people, despite outcry from those communities.

The legislature exerted further control over the cities by dissolving two civilian police oversight boards — despite calls to invest in those organizations after the fatal beating of Tyre Nichols at the hands of Memphis police officers this year — and by handing local control of the Nashville Airport Authority to the state.

It also gave final approval to a bill that would prevent transgender people from changing their gender on state identification documents, despite the risk of losing federal funding. Republicans also passed a ban on policies requiring teachers to take antiracism training and a measure aimed at curbing the teaching of “divisive concepts” on college campuses, which Democrats warned would have a chilling effect on discussions of racism and sexism.

The intersection in Memphis where Tyre Nichols was fatally beaten by the police.Credit...Desiree Rios/The New York Times

Several of those measures now await Mr. Lee’s signature. The state now faces several lawsuits, the most recent coming on Thursday, when the American Civil Liberties Union and other organizations sued over a ban on transition care for transgender teenagers that is set to take effect in July.

A $56.2 billion state budget cleared the legislature this week with near unanimity as Republicans scrambled to depart Nashville. It includes a temporary reprieve from the state’s grocery tax and millions of dollars in tax cuts for businesses, and sets aside about $3 billion for road projects.

Yet it is the debate over whether and how to restrict access to guns that is set to define the year’s work, after thousands of students, teachers and Tennessee residents flooded the Capitol to urge lawmakers to act. Demonstrators marched with children’s caskets, hundreds of students walked out of class, and thousands linked arms to form a three-mile human chain across the city.

Some Republicans urged their colleagues in the state legislature to take some steps toward gun control, even as gun lobbies rallied against Mr. Lee’s proposal and any glimmer of gun restriction.

“It should always be the right decision even if it costs you re-election,” said Oscar Brock, a member of the Republican National Committee, said of the draft proposal. “I wish they’d taken the governor up on his offer.”

“I was a little disappointed,” he added. (Mr. Brock quickly added that his disappointment was not enough to shake his allegiance to the party.)

The raw grief and rage over the legislature’s inaction exploded when Republicans expelled two young Black Democrats and fell just short of ousting a third Democrat, a rare act of retribution after the three led a gun control protest on the House floor. The two men — State Representatives Justin Jones of Nashville and Justin J. Pearson of Memphis — were quickly reinstated by local officials and spent the final days of the session on their feet, taking turns sparring with Republicans in increasingly heated confrontations over gender and race.

State Representatives Justin Jones, left, and Justin J. Pearson, who were expelled from the House, in Memphis earlier in April.Credit...Jon Cherry for The New York Times

The expulsions inflamed already bitter tensions in the legislature and heightened national scrutiny of how the Republican supermajority has wielded its power and how it had let previous instances of misconduct slide without severe punishment. A senior Republican, Scotty Campbell, abruptly resigned on Thursday, only hours after NewsChannel 5 disclosed details of a March 29 memo that found he had violated the chamber’s ethics policy against sexual harassment.

An outpouring of financial and political support galvanized Democrats in the state, who saw a glimmer of hope that their party could begin to wrest seats away from the Republican supermajority. In deeply gerrymandered Tennessee, where political power is determined largely in the Republican primaries, it remained unclear whether there would be any long-term backlash for conservative lawmakers.

But Republicans appeared eager to decamp from Nashville, even temporarily, to escape the firestorm over the expulsions and their own internal turmoil. They churned through dozens of measures over a marathon week, repeatedly cutting off debate despite objections from Democrats. And they swatted away last-ditch procedural maneuvers that would have forced them to consider gun legislation, including a Democratic version of the red flag law and a prohibition on purchasing of semiautomatic rifles that carry more than 10 rounds.

“Why would you make the choice to leave and then come back when you could just do it right here, right now?” State Representative Karen Camper, the House Democratic leader, asked Republicans in a committee hearing on Friday. She added, “People are yelling and screaming out to us to do something.”

Protesters gathered outside the Tennessee State Capitol in March to demand a ban on assault weapons.Credit...Cheney Orr/Reuters

Conservative opposition to any gun control measure appeared too deeply entrenched, though Republicans continued to insist they were interested in solutions “that prevent dangerous individuals from harming the public.”

State Representative William Lamberth, a member of the Republican leadership, said that “there’s a lot of good stuff there, but as written, I still think it needs work.”

Several gun researchers, however, balked at the conservative opposition, arguing that the measure had been watered down to the point where it fell far short of the laws Republicans were opposed to. They noted that it focused heavily on mental illness without addressing other indicators of violence and would require a waiting period before a court hearing, rather than allowing for immediate intervention.

“Those with mental illness are not disproportionately committing violence,” said Dr. April Zeoli, a top researcher at the University of Michigan Institute for Firearm Injury Prevention. “It doesn’t target the people who are committing the majority of violence, so it’s not going to tip the scales that much in terms of gun violence, and it’s only going to harm the community with mental illness.”

Lisa Geller, a co-director of the Extreme Risk Protection Order Resource Center at Johns Hopkins University, said even if the draft measure had become law, she would not count Tennessee among the states that had a so-called red flag law.

Ms. Geller said that the longer that the Tennessee legislature waits, and the longer that other state legislatures go without red flag laws or other protections in place, “the more tragedies that are going to happen in their states.”