The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Tennessee lawmakers end special session without significant gun measures

Tennessee Reps. Justin Pearson, left, and Justin Jones, both Democrats, hold protest signs at the state Capitol on Tuesday. (Cheney Orr/Reuters)
5 min

NASHVILLE — As protesters in the gallery chanted “Vote them out,” Tennessee legislators concluded a special session on public safety Tuesday without approving significant gun-control measures, despite outcry following a deadly March shooting at a local Christian school.

Republican Gov. Bill Lee had ordered legislators back to Nashville for the special summer session after a tumultuous spring that began with the tragedy at the nearby Covenant School, where three staffers and three 9-year-olds were killed, and concluded with the high-profile expulsion of two young Black legislators who protested for gun-control proposals on the House floor. After the expulsions brought national condemnation, the two men eventually regained their seats.

But when legislators made their way back to the sun-baked Capitol — through sign-waving demonstrators, masked and armed members of the extremist Proud Boys, and dozens of Tennessee Highway Patrol troopers brought in for the occasion — little was accomplished, legislators on both sides of the aisle said.

Lawmakers extended a tax break for gun safes and a free gun lock program, codified a version of the governor’s executive order strengthening background checks, and passed a law requiring the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation to conduct an annual human trafficking study.

As the session closed, parents of Covenant School children stood in the back of the chamber and held each other, some of them weeping.

Melissa Alexander, the parent of a 9-year-old survivor of the shooting at the school, on Monday had accused GOP legislators of “stabbing our families and all Tennesseans in the back. You’re elected by the people and chose to shatter our expectations.”

Even some Republicans were dismayed.

“I’m frustrated,” said Rep. John Gillespie, a moderate Republican from Memphis. “I’m not going to lump it into my party, but there were certain people that were not serious.”

Even before the session began, GOP leaders quashed Lee’s proposal for an extreme-risk protection order law that would have prevented mentally unstable individuals from possessing guns for a limited period. Some advocates also had hoped for a bill that would penalize gun owners who didn’t store their guns properly and another measure to shield autopsy reports of minors who were crime victims from the public without parental consent. In the end, they came up empty.

“This is a travesty,” said Rep. Gloria Johnson, a Democrat from Knoxville. “Why are they so terrified of open debate on gun sense laws? Well, we know why — 80 percent of Tennesseans don’t want the stuff they are bringing in here.”

Most polls — including a survey released in May by Vanderbilt University — have shown that the majority of Tennesseans favor some gun-control measures, including the extreme-risk protection order — known elsewhere as a red-flag law — that Lee had proposed.

The special session is costing Tennessee taxpayers nearly $60,000 a day, officials said — excluding the overtime cost for the extra troopers.

“Now that the special session is concluded, it is obvious that it never should have occurred in the first place,” said John Harris III, executive director of the Tennessee Firearms Association. Despite the taxpayer expense, he said, “none of the stuff that they addressed as a legislative body could not have waited until the regular session four months from now.”

Lee, a staunch advocate of the Second Amendment, had called for the extreme-risk protection order and issued an executive order strengthening the state’s background check system in April, after the March 27 shooting at the Christian school, where a close friend of the Lees’ was among the six victims.

Critics charged that Lee had done little to garner support throughout the state for his proposal but credited him for calling the special session despite internal pressure from GOP leaders to not have it.

“There’s an overall vacuum of leadership right now,” said Jeff Yarbro, a Democratic state senator who represents Nashville, adding that legislators had heard little from the governor throughout the seven-day session. “The failure to set a clear agenda is the reason this special session has deteriorated.”

Lee, for his part, told reporters Monday that he had been at the Capitol every day speaking to lawmakers. “This conversation’s important,” he added.

Republicans in the veto-proof supermajority usually work in lockstep but showed a rare moment of disunity when Senate leaders wanted to push through only a handful of bills while House Republicans debated a host of other measures on mental health, school security and juvenile crime. Leadership feuded privately as publicly a House GOP social media account tweeted a picture of an ostrich egg — an apparent reference to an ostrich having its head in the sand — and tagged Senate Republicans in a now-deleted post.

After a chaotic spring session that drew hundreds of protesters and led to the two expulsions, Republican leaders opened the special session by imposing new rules barring signs and outlining strict penalties for lawmakers who breach decorum. Demonstrators got creative, writing protest language on their bodies or holding up signs created on their mobile phones. A Davidson County judge later issued a temporary order blocking the move to bar expression.

On Monday, more fireworks occurred — Republican lawmakers voted to again temporarily silence one of the two young Black lawmakers whom they had ejected this spring, Justin Jones, saying he had violated the new rules of conduct. On Tuesday, the men — Jones and fellow Rep. Justin Pearson, both Democrats — held up signs and scuffled with Republican lawmakers and their security personnel as they made their way out of the chamber.