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Front Page - Friday, August 18, 2023

Rogers column: Expect nothing from Lee’s special session on guns

Reluctant lawmakers will trudge back to Nashville next week, summoned by Gov. Bill Lee to produce legislation “enhancing public safety.” Words of advice: Don’t hold your breath waiting for that to happen.

We all know what prompted this: the shooting in March at the Covenant School that left three 9-year-olds and three adults dead. The shooter also died, shot by Metro police officers.

The killings led to public school walkouts and demonstrations at the Capitol by students and others during the regular legislative session calling on legislators to do something about the problem of gun violence.

Lee weighed in with his idea of something: “Extreme risk” (also known as red-flag) legislation that would set up a procedure to obtain an order of protection aimed at temporarily taking guns out of the hands of someone deemed to be a risk.

“We all agree that dangerous, unstable individuals who intend to harm themselves or others should not have access to weapons,” he said.

Do we really agree?

Legislators did do something: They appropriated $140 million for armed school guards, in keeping with their firm belief that the answer to gun violence is more guns. They also passed a bill that limits the civil liabilities for gun and ammunition dealers, manufacturers and sellers.

Then they kicked out two of their young members who sided with the demonstrators, tried and failed to kick out a third less-young member and then went home.

Not exactly profiles in courage.

Lee quickly raised the issue of a special session on the topic, and the grumbling started just as quickly. In May, State Rep. Bryan Richey of Maryville posted a letter on social media asking Lee not to call legislators back, arguing in essence that it would be pointless.

“The General Assembly adamantly opposes – and has refused to enact – measures that violate Tennesseans’ Second Amendment rights, whether styled ‘order of protection’ legislation or any other euphemism,” the letter stated.

Resistance also has come from other quarters, including the executive committee of the State Republican Party, which voted urging Lee to drop the idea. The Tennessee Firearms Association – “Tennessee’s ONLY No-Compromise Gun Organization” – accused the governor of “conspiring with gun control advocates and conducting ‘secret’ meetings away from the Capitol in order to craft a gun control package.”

And in an online opinion piece in The Tennessee Conservative, Kat Stansell, “Independent Journalist and Earnest Patriot,” took Lee to task not only for supporting “unconstitutional 2A laws” but also, reaching back, for “implementing totalitarian COVID controls.”

You have to hand it to conservatives. They’ll never stop complaining about COVID safety measures. I bet they’re still peeved about the fluoridation of water.

Lee’s call for a special session on public safety says precious little about guns, their specific mention limited to just one of the 18 points he outlines: “Measures encouraging the safe storage of firearms, which do not include the creation of penalties for failing to safely store firearms.”

I think the word for a law that includes no penalty is “toothless.”

Lee does stick to his guns – so to speak – on the orders of protection, which his call states “must be initiated by law enforcement, must require a due process hearing, must require the respondent to undergo an assessment for suicidal or homicidal ideation, must require law enforcement to prove its case by clear and convincing evidence, must require that an order of protection be reevaluated at least every one-hundred eighty (180) days, and must not permit ex parte orders.”

I call your attention to what Rep. Richey had to say about that.

As I write this, a few bills have landed in the hopper ahead of the special session, none of which would move the needle on gun violence. And, of course, it wouldn’t be a legislative session if there weren’t also efforts to heap honors on student athletes, the Tennessee Mother of the Year and other achievers.

I suspect nothing that comes out of the session will give gun-safety advocates much reason to cheer. Because, deep down, conservatives see a few deaths here and there as acceptable, collateral damage in defense of the Holy Second Amendment. Praise the Lord, and pass the ammunition.

Joe Rogers is a former writer for The Tennessean and editor for The New York Times. He is retired and living in Nashville.