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Tennessee gun-control push at crossroads as proposal stalls

Nashville school and the gun debate
March For Our Lives' David Hogg on renewed gun control debate following Nashville shooting 05:54

Chances are shrinking fast for a key gun-control proposal to make it through the Tennessee Legislature in the wake of a deadly school shooting, as GOP lawmakers are pushing back against the Republican governor's proposal to keep firearms away from people who could harm themselves or others faces.

Tennessee has become a flashpoint in the nation's heated debate over gun rights. Two young Black Democratic lawmakers were expelled from the state House for a protest over gun control. They've since been reinstated.

Pressure to pass gun safety measures has also come from students, parents, politicians and others after last month's shooting at The Covenant School in Nashville, which killed three children and three adults.

"Tennesseans are asking us to set aside politics and personal pride," Gov. Bill Lee said in a video Wednesday.

As of Thursday, the path ahead was unclear.

Legislative Session Tennessee
Members of Voices for a Safer Tennessee hold signs as they attend a Senate legislative session at the state Capitol, Thursday, April 20, 2023, in Nashville, Tenn. The group is advocating for gun-control laws following the Covenant School Shooting that happened on March 27. George Walker IV / AP

Facing scrutiny over the expulsions and public demands for gun control, Republican lawmakers are hurrying to wrap up the legislative session this week. The GOP has supermajorities in both chambers.

In the final days of the session, Lee has mounted a campaign for "temporary mental health orders of protection."

Law enforcement would first determine if a person is a threat, then a hearing with the person in question would be held, and a judge would rule whether they should indeed have their weapons taken away temporarily. If so, the person would have to surrender their guns, ammunition and any handgun carry license to a third party within 48 hours, for up to 180 days.

A person facing an order of protection petition would be offered a court-appointed attorney, and anyone determined to have filed a frivolous report could face a felony perjury charge. There would also be a mental health evaluation.

Lee said top lawmakers gave input on the proposal and he argued it isn't a "red flag law." He called that term a "toxic political label meant to draw lines in the sand so nothing gets done."

In a cool reception, House Republicans didn't appear to make a distinction on terminology.

Legislative Session Tennessee
Sen. Jeff Yarbro, D-Nashville, lowers his head at his desk on the Senate floor after the Senate voted to table an Extreme Risk Protection Orders law during a legislative session, Thursday, April 20, 2023, in Nashville, Tenn. George Walker IV / AP

"Any red flag law is a non-starter," the House GOP caucus tweeted Wednesday. "Our caucus is focused on finding solutions that prevent dangerous individuals from harming the public and preserve the Second Amendment rights of law-abiding citizens."

Republican Lt. Gov. Randy McNally, who runs the Senate, has said the governor's proposal strikes the right balance. Republican House Speaker Cameron Sexton was noncommittal, saying he wants to find "the best path forward to protect Tennessee children."

Lee's plan still hasn't been put onto a bill. As Senate Democrats called for a vote on Lee's proposal, Sen. Jeff Yarbro of Nashville on Thursday tried to force a floor vote on a similar plan. Republicans rejected it on procedural grounds.

During that debate, Katy Dieckhaus, whose daughter Evelyn Dieckhaus died in The Covenant School, watched from the gallery with a photo of her daughter in her lap.

Legislative Session Tennessee
Katy Dieckhaus (right0, mother of Covenant School shooting victim Evelyn Dieckhaus, reacts as members of the Senate vote to table an Extreme Risk Protection Order law during a legislative session at the state Capitol, Thursday, April 20, 2023, in Nashville, Tenn. George Walker IV / AP

After the shooting, lawmakers and Lee have passed proposals that largely focus on school security. A new budget passed Thursday includes $204.7 million proposed by Lee for enhanced school safety and student behavioral health measures, including a school resource officer in every public school and grants for private school security.

Lawmakers also passed a bill to further protect gun and ammunition dealers, manufacturers and sellers against lawsuits, despite pleas not to consider it in light of the shooting.

Public pressure for stricter gun laws has continued to grow.

Bill Frist, the former Republican U.S. Senate majority leader from Tennessee, was among the authors of a newspaper column calling for so-called extreme risk protection orders and other changes. Frist is a heart and lung transplant surgeon.

"The vast majority of Americans support sensible gun laws. The vast majority of Tennesseans do too," the column states.

Gun lobby groups have quickly cried foul.

The Tennessee Firearms Association said Lee's proposal shows "callous disregard of the United States Supreme Court and the Constitution."

The National Rifle Association's legislative arm said Tennessee law already allows for "detention of dangerous individuals experiencing a mental health crisis."

Lee has said "involuntary commitment" would "restrict all kinds of constitutional rights, including the Second Amendment."

Police say the shooter at The Covenant School was under a doctor's care for an undisclosed "emotional disorder." However, authorities haven't publicly stated a link between that care and the shooting. Police say the shooter was not on their radar before the attack.

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