Is There a Conservative Case for a Special Session in Tennessee?

Less than three weeks away from the anticipated start of Tennessee’s special session on public safety, Gov. Bill Lee has finally issued his official call bringing lawmakers back to Nashville on August 21st, rejecting the state’s Republican Executive Committee resolution urging Lee to cancel the planned session entirely.

In his proclamation, Lee outlined the parameters of the bills that will be allowed to be brought forward, which at first glance would appear to take many of the gun control policies Democrats have been demanding off the table, including repeal of the state’s firearm preemption law, bans on so-called assault weapons and large capacity magazines, and more.

( 1) Mental health resources, providers, commitments, or services; (2) School safety plans or policies; (3) Health care providers’ duty to warn about potential violent offenses; ( 4) Offenses of committing acts of mass violence or threatening to commit acts of mass violence; (5) Reports from the Tennessee Bureau of lnvestigation regarding human trafficking; (6) Identification of individuals arrested for felonies; (7) Law enforcement’s access to criminal and juvenile records; (8) Law enforcement’s access to information about individuals who are subject to mental health commitment; (9) Information about victims of violent offenses; ( 10) Stalking offenses; (11) Measures encouraging the safe storage of firearms, which do not include the creation of penalties for failing to safely store firearms; (12) Temporary mental health orders of protection, which 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; (13) The transfer of juvenile defendants aged sixteen (16) and older to courts with criminal jurisdiction, which must include appeal rights for the juveniles and the prosecuting authorities; (14) Limiting the circumstances in which juvenile records may be expunged; ( 15) Blended sentencing for juveniles; (16) Offenses related to inducing or coercing a minor to commit an offense; (17) The structure or operations of state or local courts; and (18) Making appropriations sufficient to provide funding for any legislation that receives final passage during the extraordinary session; making appropriations sufficient to pay the expenses of the extraordinary session, including the expenses of carrying out any actions taken pursuant to this proclamation; making appropriations sufficient to support mental health initiatives; making appropriations for school safety grants, as described on page B90 of the 2023-2024 Budget Document and in Section 54, Item 1-41, Section 60, Item 25, and Section 60, Item 26 of Chapter 418, Public Acts of 2023; and making appropriations to support school safety at institutions of higher education.

Democrats, meanwhile, are launching a statewide bus tour to drum up support for their gun control proposals, even those that fall beyond the parameters of Lee’s proclamation, and will likely claim that their bills should be allowed because they’re supposedly aimed at “offenses of committing acts of mass violence”. Anti-gunners can and will still use the special session as a stage to grandstand against the Second Amendment with their allies in the media painting conservative lawmakers as obstructionists unwilling to adopt “common sense” and “reasonable” measures that would prevent school shootings, even if their anti-gun bills would do no such thing.

In the pages of the Tennessean newspaper, however, columnist Cameron Smith claims there’s “a reasonable conservative case for having a special session on public safety even for lawmakers who don’t support extreme protection orders” like the temporary mental health restraining order proposed by Lee.

Republican elected officials from across Tennessee have expressed misgivings about legislation involving protective orders and just about any other laws which would burden gun ownership.

They’re no more political extremists than the legions of Tennessee voters who put them in office.

An expansive reading of the Second Amendment isn’t a close political issue in Tennessee outside of a handful of progressive enclaves in the metropolitan areas.

Many Republicans grew up safely around firearms and then had their perspectives affirmed by the gun lobby and generations of sympathetic lawmakers. Like it or not, the current status quo is undoubtedly the most effective way to protect the Second Amendment.

Start with “no,” and force proponents of gun restrictions to drag Republicans kicking and screaming to their point of view.

Ummm, how about we just stop with “no”, rather than allowing the forces of gun control to drag, bully, or herd Republicans to their point of view. In fact, if Smith is trying to convince Republicans not to fear a special session shouldn’t he be talking about dragging Democrats over towards recognizing that criminalizing the fundamental civil right to keep and bear arms is a terrible way to combat the actions of violent criminals?

Smith has a slightly more convincing argument when he talks about the political implications of a special session, suggesting that it will give Republicans a chance to flip the script when it comes to the typical gun control debate by “both express[ing] sympathy to victims of violence” and their suspicions of “restraints on the Second Amendment”.  That’s true enough, though there’s no reason that can’t be done in the course of a regular session. But Smith also believes a special session would quarantine the gun control debate to a few days in August rather than becoming the focus of the next regular session of the legislature.

While the Tennessee Republican Party’s executive committee may certainly ask for public safety measures to be considered in the next regular session, they’re missing the most obvious reason to have it in August:

The circus.

With a special session, Lee firewalls the next regular session. Put it all out now. Let the votes fall where they may. National gun control groups will unleash their media attacks.

Rep. Justin Pearson, D-Memphis, and Rep. Justin Jones, D-Nashville, will appear on CNN for another 15 minutes. The legislature will undoubtedly enact some laws and reject others. Then, we’re done.

When Democrats try to drag the issue into the next regular session, Republicans can remind them that they already had their shot.

Lee will survive if the legislature votes against his legislation. Frankly it’s good for Republicans not to look like a mindless monolith. Nobody should be concerned that the special session will magically vault Rep. Gloria Johnson, D-Knoxville, into a competitive Senate bid against Marsha Blackburn.

I have bad news for Smith: no matter what happens in Nashville in a few weeks, Democrats are going to use the special session as a springboard to demand more restrictions going forward, and Republicans are still going to be painted as intransigent blowhards willing to sacrifice school kids at the altar of the Second Amendment. Even if Lee’s “red flag” proposal were to pass, it doesn’t go nearly as far as the anti-gunners want, and they’ll be back in January demanding much more.

Smith also glosses over the impact that the special session could have; breezily admitting that some laws will be enacted without expressing much at all concern about what those laws might be. We’re less than three weeks from the start of the session and most of the bills that will be considered have not even been made available for the public to scrutinize, and once the session starts lawmakers will be rushing to get legislation through committee and onto the floor of the House and Senate, so there won’t be much time for voters to learn the details of any proposal before it passes.

Smith’s strongest argument is that Republicans risk looking like they’re “trying to avoid the issue of violence in our communities instead of addressing it with confidence and fidelity to the Constitution” if the special session is canceled or is quickly gaveled out without taking any legislative action. I saw that firsthand in Virginia in 2019 when then-Gov. Ralph Northam called a session of the General Assembly after a mass shooting at the city hall complex in Virginia Beach. The GOP-controlled legislature was in session for about ten minutes before calling it a day, and that was used to clobber Republican candidates in legislative races in the fall, helping Democrats capture control of both chambers for the first time in nearly 30 years.

Of course, that majority was short-lived thanks to the Democrats’ attempt to ram a sweeping gun ban bill through the legislature, which led to more than 100 towns, cities, and counties across the Commonwealth declaring themselves Second Amendment sanctuaries and energized rural voters, who turned out big in 2021 and helped the GOP retake the House along with every statewide office on the ballot, from governor to attorney general.

Tennessee isn’t a purple state like Virginia, and I doubt that gaveling the special session to a close minutes after it begins would cost Republicans their majorities in the House or Senate next year, but it would still leave many voters with the impression that Republicans aren’t serious about public safety or violent crime. I think it was a mistake for Lee to call for a special session, and the secrecy surrounding the bills being drafted is another serious misstep on the governor’s part, but if he’s insistent that a special session takes place then I’ll agree with Smith on one point: Republican lawmakers need to bring their own ideas to the table instead acquiescing to the prohibitionists’ demands or simply skipping out of the state capitol at the first opportunity.


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