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Front Page - Friday, September 8, 2023

There was little ‘special’ about this wasted session

Covenant parent Mary Joyce is emotional as she speaks outside the House chamber. - Photo By George Walker IV | AP

“Believe people when they tell you who they are,” the poet Maya Angelou advised. Smart woman, she was.

Time and again Tennessee legislators have told us – and, more to the point, have shown us – who they are. They’re not hiding anything. If we don’t believe them, it’s not their fault, it’s ours.

Normally, I’m in favor of legislators’ doing next to nothing. The less they do, I figure, the less likely they are to do something boneheaded. Let them occupy themselves by honoring high school athletes or notable newly dead people, or by designating official state power tools and whatnot. (Here’s my latest plug for an official state musical instrument: banjo. I won’t give up.)

But this recent special session was supposed to address “public safety,” as Gov. Bill Lee’s proclamation defined the call. Theoretically, an opportunity to serve as an actual benefit to their constituents, rather than a clown-car sideshow.

Ha. Fat chance.

As I wrote last month, the legislative grumbling started as soon as the governor raised the possibility of a special session, after the killings at the Covenant School in March left three 9-year-olds and three adults dead.

Then on the first day of the session, the reliably vacuous Sen. Janice Bowling argued that, a few bullet-riddled victims here and there notwithstanding, her constituents and she perceived “that we face no emergency or immediate danger.” She moved to adjourn.

It wasn’t a proper motion to draw a vote, since she hadn’t thought to file a resolution to back it. The resolution she came back with the next day, which stated no reason, went nowhere.

But it didn’t matter. Legislators – which is to say, the leaders and virtually all their fellow Republican lemmings – had no intention of passing anything substantive to realistically address gun safety.

What they did do was pass a few bills variously throwing some money at mental health agencies and school safety grants, encouraging (but not requiring) people to lock up guns, and nodding at background checks and human trafficking.

Among other items legislators turned their attention to was initiating a rule banning protest signs in the House gallery and committee rooms, a ban that Chancellor Anne Martin of Davidson County, unsurprisingly, deemed unconstitutional.

They also moved to gag Rep. Justin Jones for vocally daring to stray from the scripted program. For a group that bewails “cancel culture,” Republicans sure do like to stifle dissent.

Then at the end, a scrum managed to somehow entangle Rep. Justin Pearson in a shoving controversy with Speaker Cameron Sexton. Do wrestling promoters stage-manage these gatherings?

By the way, if the Justins sound familiar to you, they should. Not so long ago, House Republicans booted them from the body for perceived felony impertinence. We’ve all seen how effective that turned out to be.

Gov. Lee did his best to put on a brave face about the session. “We have much work to do, but together, the work that we did this week and the work that we’ll do in the future will make Tennessee a safer place,” he said in a statement after the close.

Yeah, right.

The only thing that can be considered an actual success for gun safety advocates is a bill that failed in a House committee, on a 9-to-9 vote. Rep. Chris Todd sponsored the measure, which would have greatly expanded the numbers of people who could legally pack guns on school and college campuses, athletic fields and the like.

More evidence of conservative dogma that the best answer to gun violence is … more guns.

Among the representatives voting against the bill were five Republicans. Believe me, a pro-gun bill has to reach a substantial level of nonsensicality to get Republicans to vote no.

In the end, Sarah Shoop Neumann, the mother of a Covenant school student, vowed action against the obstinate majority.

“We will work towards ensuring every one of those seats is replaced by someone who has a true desire to listen to their constituents over firearm association lobbyists,” she said, according to The Tennessean. “We will be back in January.”

Unless some sort of sea change takes place among the General Assembly between now and then – an unlikely prospect – it won’t matter. We know who the legislators are.

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