Tennessee’s GOP Governor, in Wake of Nashville School Shooting, Calls for Law Allowing State To Confiscate Weapons

Second Amendment

Tennessee’s Republican governor, Bill Lee, is under fire from conservatives and gun rights advocates for introducing a red flag law that is nearly identical to those of most blue states — but he is calling it an “order of protection” instead of a red flag rule. 

Mr. Lee released the text of the proposal on Wednesday evening accompanied by a six-minute explainer video posted to Twitter. “Tennesseeans are asking us to set aside politics and personal pride, and they are depending on us to do the right thing,” he said. “We all agree that dangerous, unstable individuals who intend to harm themselves or others should not have access to weapons.”

The proposed new red flag law would allow the government to take citizens’ legally owned firearms for a variety of reasons, including drug or alcohol abuse, diagnosis of a “mental, behavioral, or emotional” disorder, or threatening to kill themselves or others. 

Should gun owners be found to have any of these impairments, the state would be allowed to suspend their gun licenses and take their firearms for up to 180 days. The proposal would also allow county officials to issue a “temporary mental health order of protection” that would force a gun owner to seek treatment for mental health issues or substance abuse.

The proposed red flag comes after the recent shooting at the Covenant School in Nashville. Mr. Lee has faced calls from both sides of the aisle to institute some form of more restrictive gun laws in the wake of the shooting. Yet with conservative Republicans holding a supermajority in both houses of the Tennessee legislature, it is unclear whether Mr. Lee can get his bill through the legislature.

In all, 19 states and the District of Columbia have some variation of a red flag law, or “protection order,” though some are more lenient than others. Connecticut instituted the first red flag law in 1999, and an update last year now allows the state’s teachers and medical professionals to seek court orders to take weapons from people. Colorado, Florida, Vermont, and Massachusetts all instituted similar laws after the 2018 shooting at Parkland, Florida.

Maine has its own “yellow flag law” that can only be implemented when gun owners explicitly threaten to harm themselves or others. Oklahoma is the only state that adopted an “anti-red flag law” that bars all counties and local governments from instituting red flag laws. 

The speaker of the Tennessee house of representatives, Cameron Sexton, has not yet committed to supporting the bill. “As we have said from the beginning, we are working with his administration and the Senate to find the best path forward to protect Tennessee children,” Mr. Sexton’s office said in a statement to News Channel 5. “These conversations will continue as we await more direction from the administration on which bill is sufficient to accomplish his goal.”

The Tennessee house Republican caucus — without calling Mr. Lee out by name or mentioning this new proposal — said in a statement that any red flag law “is a non-starter.”

After the shooting, Mr. Lee embraced a Republican-sponsored school safety bill that allocated more money for school safety officers and building improvements. He also signed an executive order that encourages greater communication between law enforcement and mental health professionals to ensure all background checks in Tennessee are comprehensive. 

The new red flag law he just introduced goes much further than gun rights groups would like, though. In a press release, the National Rifle Association called Mr. Lee’s proposal a “gun confiscation order.”

“The Governor’s proposal would empower the government to seize a person’s firearms without proving a person is dangerous by obtaining a criminal conviction or committing the person to a mental institution,” the NRA said.

Mr. Lee argues that this red flag law proposal “requires due process, high burdens of proof, supports law enforcement, punishes false reporting, enhances mental health support, and preserves the Second Amendment for law-abiding citizens.”

The so-called Tennessee Three — Representatives Justin Jones, Justin Pearson, and Gloria Johnson — have been calling for red flag laws since the shooting, and were expelled over their disruption on the house floor when they demanded such measures. 

Mr. Pearson wrote on Twitter that Republicans are ignoring their constituents: “After thousands of people have come to our Capitol advocating for red flag laws, which would help reduce the prevalence of gun violence.” Ms. Johnston said that “lobbyists” will likely stop this proposal from advancing, adding that her Republican colleagues “are just going to ignore the TN families pleading with them.”

Other Democrats in Tennessee are still not satisfied with Mr. Lee’s proposal, which goes much further than most national Republicans want. The Tennessee house Democratic caucus leader, John Ray Clemmons, told News Channel 5 that the bill is “watered down” and insufficient to address gun violence. 

“It reads as if he is more concerned about getting all 75 Republicans’ votes on a bill than effectively protecting children and Tennessee families from gun violence,” Mr. Clemmons said. “Tennesseans deserve leadership and courage on this issue from their elected leaders. Unfortunately, neither are coming from the other side of the aisle, and they should be held accountable for that.”

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