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Alex Wong, Getty Images via Tennessee Lookout

Tennessee gun lobby throws cold water on governor’s protective order plan


By Sam Stockard, Tennessee Lookout

The Tennessee Firearms Association is trashing Gov. Bill Lee’s push for what it calls a “red flag law,” saying he wants to pass an unconstitutional measure as an emotional reaction to the Covenant School shooting.

“Governor Lee called for the Legislature to react to the emotional response of some citizens after the Covenant murders and more particularly after the expulsion of two Democrat House members who demanded gun control,” Executive Director John Harris said in a Wednesday statement. “Nothing in Bruen authorized knee-jerk emotional responses to murders or the calls of progressive Democrats and their mobs to justify government infringement of a right protected by the Constitution.”

The association contends Lee’s plan would violate the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in New York State Rifle & Pistol Association v. Bruen. Justices found that the Second and Fourteenth Amendments guarantee the right to “keep” firearms in their homes and to “bear arms” in public, including the ability of “ordinary, law-abiding citizens” to carry firearms “for self-defense outside the home,” without infringement from state and federal governments.

"I’ve talked to Republican members that say that the Tennessee Firearms Association is irrelevant." — Rep. Bob Freeman, D-Nashville

Tennessee Attorney General Jonathan Skrmetti, based in part on the court’s decision in Bruen, reached an agreement with a California gun rights group that sued the state over its permit-less carry law and agreed to drop the gun-carry age to 18. Two bills to lower the age to 18 are hung up in committees, but the state Legislature remains a gun-friendly body overall.

Thus, Lee is avoiding the term “red flag law” while trying to garner the Legislature’s support for a new protective order that would prohibit access to weapons for people deemed to be a danger to themselves and others. He made the proposal two weeks after six people, including three 9-year-olds, died in a hail of bullets at The Covenant School in Green Hills.

The proposal, which he wants done this session, is meeting with mixed reaction from lawmakers and faces an uphill battle with only a couple of weeks left in the legislative session.

The governor also signed an executive order Tuesday to improve the background check system in Tennessee for firearms purchases.

Democratic state Rep. Bob Freeman, whose district contains The Covenant School, said Wednesday he hopes the governor’s plan can survive a fight from the gun lobby.

“I’ve talked to Republican members that say that the Tennessee Firearms Association is irrelevant,” Freeman said.

Yet Republican House will be torn between following the governor’s lead and sticking up for their voters, many of whom base ballot decisions on support on the absolute right to bear arms. The gun lobby doesn’t spend heavily on legislative races, but pro-gun voters are a critical ingredient in Republican elections.

“People back home don’t like it. They don’t want their gun rights taken away from ’em, so we’re going to have to vet that very, very closely and I don’t know to what degree his executive order will play out on legislation when we go to pass something, because my people back home do not like it,” Rep Dale Carr, a Sevierville Republican, said Tuesday.

Rank-and-file Republicans are dead set against a “red flag law” too, Carr said.

“Depriving someone of a constitutional right is a serious matter and any proposal to create an emergency mental health order of protection must be carefully considered, narrowly tailored and require rigorous due process,” Sen. Jack Johnson, R-Franklin. // John Partipilo via Tennessee Lookout

In his statement, Harris points out many Republican lawmakers campaigned as “strong Second Amendment supporters” and told constituents they would never back a “red flag law,” even signing pledges against voting for such laws.

“Now Republican Governor Lee calls on them to violate those promises and assurances and to pass a ‘Red Flag’ law,” Harris wrote.

Harris calls “red flag” laws “a scheme” that allows almost anyone to claim that a person at risk of harming themselves or others shouldn’t be able to possess a gun. He points out courts can direct law enforcement to seize a person’s weapons and to notify authorities that  the person is banned from having guns — all without due process.

Republican leaders said Tuesday any type of protective order to prevent an unstable person from possessing weapons would have to include provisions guaranteeing due process.

But while some Republican leaders said they would be willing to work with the governor, Senate Majority Leader Jack Johnson, who usually carries the governor’s legislation, said changes to state law shouldn’t be made hastily in an emotional time.

“Depriving someone of a constitutional right is a serious matter and any proposal to create an emergency mental health order of protection must be carefully considered, narrowly tailored and require rigorous due process,” Johnson, a Franklin Republican, said. He noted no bill has been drafted and he could not endorse or oppose a bill he hasn’t seen.

Sam Stockard is a veteran Tennessee reporter and editor, having written for the Daily News Journal in Murfreesboro, where he served as lead editor when the paper won an award for being the state’s best Sunday newspaper two years in a row. He has led the Capitol Hill bureau for The Daily Memphian. His awards include Best Single Editorial from the Tennessee Press Association.

Now more than ever, tough and fair journalism is important. The Tennessee Lookout is your watchdog, telling the stories of politics and policy that affect the people of the Volunteer State.

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