JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) – Tennessee state lawmakers just returned from Nashville as the regular session ended last week, but a push from Governor Bill Lee is expected to bring them back early.
Last Friday, Lee announced he would call for a special session to “pass legislation that will strengthen public safety and preserve constitutional rights.”
The call comes after the shooting at the Covenant School in Nashville that killed six people, including three children.
The resulting protests at the state capitol led to a tumultuous month in the Tennessee General Assembly. Two Democrat lawmakers were expelled – and later reinstated by their districts – amid calls for gun reform.
Last week, Lee called on the General Assembly to pass legislation that would strengthen Tennessee’s order of protection laws.
The proposal would allow courts to temporarily take guns away from individuals deemed a threat to themselves or others.
The process would involve a police petition to remove the guns from an individual followed by a court hearing, which the individual is allowed to attend. Judges would have the ability to remove the weapons for up to 180 days.
Some Tennessee Republicans have labeled Lee’s proposal as a ‘red flag law,’ despite Lee saying it is not.
That is a sentiment shared by some of Northeast Tennessee’s delegation to the General Assembly.
Rep. Tim Hicks (R-Gray) said he believes the proposal is a red flag law, and it may be a tough sell to legislators.
“I consider it a red flag law, some form or fashion of that,” Hicks said. “The conservative side is saying that it’s probably not going to pass in the form that it’s in, that it’s probably going to restrict folks’ rights too much, and then you have the other side of the aisle saying it’s watered down.”
Sen. Jon Lundberg (R-Bristol) said he is not a fan of red flag laws, but said any decisions made at the special session need to focus on mental health rather than guns.
“Is there due process?” Lundberg said. “To me, that’s a critically important part because I think we can all agree that someone who’s diagnosed as mentally unstable who is making or made threats to themselves or others, there’s an issue there. So, to me, it’s a mental health discussion we need to have.”
Hicks said he agrees that discussions need to be focused on mental health.
“We can try to keep guns away from folks, but that is not the cure-all, and I think that a lot of folks are thinking that it is,” Hicks said. “We can pass a gun law. I truly don’t believe that’s the answer. I think there’s many aspects of it and mental health is a huge, huge part of this, and that’s what I want to see us focus on.”
Lundberg also questioned the timing of Lee’s call for a special session.
The session ended last week, and Lundberg said the General Assembly should wait until next year’s session to push for any gun or mental health reforms.
“I think it’s a little premature to come in right now to try to put something to react,” Lundberg said. “Otherwise, we’ll bounce back and forth to Nashville every month.”
Lundberg also said the General Assembly did plenty of work regarding public safety, especially in schools, during this year’s regular session.
“I think in so many ways, we already tackled school safety,” Lundberg said. “We spent about a quarter billion dollars in school safety, including $140 million to put a school resource officer in every school in the state.
“It wasn’t reactionary. It’s not something we just did over the last three weeks. We’ve been working on this for the last 3-4 months.”
Hicks said lawmakers need more time to consider any changes. He suggested waiting and gathering the necessary information from constituents and involved parties before making a decision.
“I think it’s important to get everyone’s viewpoint,” Hicks said. “I don’t want to really rush into a special session. I think it’s a topic that needs to be addressed, but it’s going to take time.”
Lundberg said he believes the governor’s urgency in pushing for the special session is spurred by the events near the end of the regular session, including the expulsion votes in the House and subsequent protests.
“I think the governor because it’s happening there, and obviously the governor lives there, he is seeing that,” Lundberg said. “So that vision is very focused on what he sees outside the windows.”
Hicks said he has heard that Lee would like the special session to be sometime in late May.
News Channel 11 reached out to Lee’s office for more information on the special session and when it would happen. A spokesperson said the governor would share more details and officially call for the special session in the coming days.
At an event in Chattanooga Monday, Lee said he wants to work with the General Assembly to find a way to protect the broader public and protect their rights, particularly the Second Amendment rights of Tennesseans.