NASHVILLE — Hundreds of students, parents and teachers marched day after day to the Tennessee State Capitol demanding an assault weapons ban and action on gun control. Their calls were echoed by musicians like Amy Grant and Sheryl Crow, who went 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 urging them to support a proposal that would help temporarily limit access to guns for people deemed a danger to themselves or others by a court of law.
But on Friday, just under a month after the attack on the school, Republicans instead cut the year’s legislative session and kicked any measure that explicitly related to guns, sparking a three-month whirlwind of legislation. which underlined the power of the extreme right flank. of the Republican Party in Tennessee and saw the brief ousting of two black Democratic lawmakers.
“It’s frustrating and motivating,” said Jamie Starnes, 37, who protested Friday morning at 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 Covenant School shooting. killing three adults and three 9-year-olds. “We’re not going anywhere,” she added.
Within two hours of the legislature’s hurried departure, the state’s Republican Governor Bill Lee announced he would recall lawmakers 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 a protection bill, which, in a bid to win over Conservative support, had become so restrictive that some experts said it would not even qualify. come. as the type of “red flag law” scorned by gun rights advocates.
“There is broad agreement that dangerous, unstable individuals who intend to harm themselves or others should not have access to guns,” Lee said in a statement. “We also share a strong commitment to preserving Second Amendment rights, ensuring due process and addressing the root of the problem with strengthened mental health resources.”
But when the legislature left on Friday, it was clear that any measure restricting access to guns, even one as narrow as Mr. Lee’s proposal, would raise major issues with the Republican supermajority.
Republicans largely agreed with that proposal, arguing that they were too far into the session to review the state budget and examine the implications of such a law. Instead, they highlighted the passage of about $140 million to fund school resource police officers on public school campuses, another of Mr. Lee’s requests.
Speaker Cameron Sexton suggested that Republicans look elsewhere, after discussing other proposals that would “focus on the mental health aspect of this and only close loopholes.”
“Hopefully we get another chance,” he added during a press conference Friday night. “I also think it’s again important to have these conversations outside of the Capitol with the public and give them input on how we should move forward.”
The calls for extra time and discussion, however, were in stark contrast in a session in which the assembly supermajority also significantly undermined the autonomy of the state’s largest Democratic-leaning cities and curtailed the rights of LGBTQ people, despite the outcry of those communities .
The legislature exerted further control over the cities by dissolving two civil police oversight councils – despite calls to invest in those organizations after Tire Nichols’ fatal beating this year by Memphis police officers — and by handing over local control of the Nashville Airport Authority to the state.
Several of those measures are now awaiting Mr Lee’s signature. The state now faces several lawsuits, most recently on Thursday, when the American Civil Liberties Union and other organizations filed a lawsuit over a ban on transitional care for transgender teens that takes effect in July.
A $56.2 billion state budget was passed by the legislature this week by near-unanimity as Republicans scrambled to leave Nashville. It includes a temporary reprieve from state grocery taxes and millions of dollars in tax cuts for businesses, and earmarks about $3 billion for road projects.
But it’s the debate over whether and how to limit access to guns that will define the year’s work, after thousands of Tennessee students, teachers and residents flooded the Capitol to urge lawmakers to action. Protesters marched with children’s boxes, hundreds of students walked out of class, and thousands joined 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 opposed Mr. Lee’s proposal and any glimpse of gun control.
“It always has to be the right decision, even if it costs you re-election,” 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 was quick to add that his disappointment was not enough to shake his allegiance to the party.)
Raw grief and anger at the legislature’s inaction exploded as Republicans ousted two young black Democrats and narrowly failed to impeach a third Democrat, a rare act of retaliation 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.
The evictions already created bitter tensions in the legislature and increased national scrutiny over how the Republican supermajority has exercised its power and how it had let previous cases of misconduct slide without severe punishment. A senior Republican, Scotty Campbell, abruptly resigned Thursday, just hours after NewsChannel 5 revealed details of a March 29 memo finding that he had violated the chamber’s ethics policy against sexual harassment.
A flurry of financial and political support got Democrats in the state thinking, who saw a ray of hope that their party could begin to snatch seats away from the Republican supermajority. In deeply gerrymandered Tennessee, where political power is largely determined in the Republican primaries, it remained unclear whether long-term backlash would come for conservative lawmakers.
But Republicans seemed eager to leave Nashville, even temporarily, to escape the eviction storm and their own internal turmoil. They enacted dozens of measures over a marathon week, repeatedly breaking off the debate despite objections from Democrats. And they brushed off last-ditch procedural maneuvers that would have forced them to consider gun legislation, including a democratic version of the red flag law and a ban on the purchase of semi-automatic rifles that can carry more than 10 rounds.
“Why make the choice to leave and then come back when you could just do it here and now?” That’s what State Representative Karen Camper, the leader of the Democrats in the House of Representatives, asked the Republicans during a committee hearing on Friday. She added, “People are yelling and yelling at us to do something.”
Conservative opposition to any gun control measure seemed too entrenched, though Republicans continued to push 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 out there, but as written, I still think there’s work to be done.”
However, several gun researchers took issue with conservative opposition, arguing that the measure had been watered down to the point that it fell far short of laws opposed by Republicans. They noted that it focused heavily on mental illness without addressing other indicators of violence and required a waiting period for a court hearing, rather than allowing for immediate intervention.
“People with mental illness don’t commit disproportionate violence,” says Dr. April Zeoli, a top researcher at the University of Michigan Institute for Firearm Injury Prevention. “It’s not targeting the people who perpetrate the bulk of the violence, so it won’t go too far in terms of gun violence, and it will only harm the community with mental illness.”
Lisa Geller, a co-director of the Extreme Risk Protection Order Resource Center at Johns Hopkins University, said that even if the draft measure became law, she would not count Tennessee among the states with a so-called red flag law.
Ms. Geller said the longer the Tennessee legislature waits, and the longer other state legislatures go without red flag laws or other protections, “the more tragedies will happen in their states.”