We’re one week away from the start of a special legislative session in Nashville, and we’re getting a preview of what gun owners can expect on today’s Bearing Arms’ Cam & Co. I’m thrilled that John Harris, executive director of the Tennessee Firearms Association, could join me to discuss the upcoming session, as well as what gun owners should be doing to ensure the defeat of any anti-gun legislation when lawmakers return to the state capitol.
As we reported last week, while Gov. Bill Lee’s announced scope of the special session would include his version of a “red flag” law, the governor did not include that piece of legislation in the administration’s package sent to lawmakers. Harris says that’s a very good sign, but warns that anything can happen once the session begins.
“We know that legislators have a tendency to open up a bill with what’s called a ‘caption bill’, put a description in the body of the bill, and then in the first committee hearings gets totally rewritten with an amendment. So we have no comfort that what’s being shown on the General Assembly website has any truthfulness to it as to the actual intent of the sponsors to be the bill they plan to propose and push through the system. It could just be a placeholder for some other bill to be sprung on us at the last minute.”
When I spoke to Harris on Friday there had been four bills submitted to the House, and none to the Senate. That’s what the General Assembly website still shows as of mid-day Monday, but we know that more will be filed. Harris says he expects dozens of different bills to be dropped in the legislative hopper, and state Senator Ferrell Haile is already touting one piece of legislation that he believes both gun control advocates and Second Amendment supporters can get behind.
“We’ve threaded a needle,” Haile said in an interview. “It’s taken three months of working with this and talking with lots of people to try and come to something that is meaningful, that will make a difference.”
Haile has drafted legislation to make any threat of violence against four or more people a felony, regardless of whether the violence could be committed with a firearm, vehicle, bomb, or other weapon. Penalties would be heightened if the threat is made against a school, church, government building, or other location where 250 or more people visit each day. Currently, threats of mass violence at a school are a misdemeanor offense.
“Folks are just kind of appalled that this is only a misdemeanor, which is not much different than a speeding ticket,” Haile said.
“This special session call is a result of the shooting at Covenant school. There’s no question about that. But that should not be our only focus,” Haile told The Tennessean. “We feel like if we change this, then we could have (if there had been a report made and had been followed up), then we could have gotten the Christmas bomber, the Covenant shooter, and the patient that killed a physician in Memphis just last week.”
Haile says there are due process guardrails in his proposal, including allowing defendants to be released on bail and precluding the confiscation of any lawfully-owned firearms from those accused but not yet convicted of a crime. Defendants would, however, have to undergo a mental health evaluation and behavioral risk assessment, which would be used by judges in determining whether bail should be allowed in particular cases.
Haile said he has shared draft language with representatives of the NRA, and the group does not oppose the proposal.
“I had not been working with the NRA,” Haile said. “I had paid attention to the ideas they had put forward — they wanted due process, and they felt like it was an individual issue, not an across-the-board, everybody-who-owns-a-gun-is-a-suspect-type deal.”
He’s also met with Covenant parents to get their feedback on the draft bill, and they’re supportive, Haile said.
Haile has also sought feedback from a variety of state agencies, and does not anticipate opposition from the Tennessee Attorney General’s Office, the Department of Safety and Homeland Security, the Administrative Office of the Courts, the District Attorneys General Conference, and the Department of Mental Health.
He’s also spoken with several House members who are supportive, and he’s identified a House sponsor, though is not ready to name them.
“I anticipate there’ll be a lot of co-sponsors on these bills,” Haile said. “If this gets to the floor, I think it gets passed very easily.”
Haile’s proposal may be a good one, but Harris says he’s concerned that once the special session gets underway it’s going to be nearly impossible for folks to keep up with any amendments or changes, especially if, as he’s heard, the session could last just a few days. In fact, even if the special session concludes without any new gun control bills being approved by the Republican supermajority, Harris says he’s not convinced that the governor is going to let his “red flag” proposal fade into the sunset.
“It’s nothing short of a political tantrum,” Harris says about the governor’s insistence on a special session despite the outpouring of opposition from his own party. “He didn’t get his way so he’s rolling around on the floor in the grocery store throwing a fit until the legislature responds. I do think they should come in and just adjourn, because this needs to be brought up in regular session. That’s only five months away. And at that point our voices as residents of the state and the voices of Second Amendment advocates in other states because you don’t want Tennessee to be a template on how to turn a red state into a “red flag” state, could be heard and heard loudly across the nation, but that’s not been what’s transpiring.”
No, it most certainly is not, and it sure sounds like the Republican majority is going to “do something” during the special session other than just gaveling it to a close within seconds of calling it to order. Tennessee gun owners need to be on guard, because as we’ve seen with the Biden administration and the “Bipartisan Community Safety Act” even legislation that purports to be of no threat to lawful gun owners can be weaponized against our fundamental right to keep and bear arms.