The 113th General Assembly adjourned its first of two annual regular sessions on April 21, 2023, approximately one month after the Covenant School shooting. Calls for school safety measures and gun control action in the aftermath of the tragedy appeared only to accelerate the close of regular session to allow lawmakers to return to their districts for the summer during an off-election year. However, moments after adjournment Governor Bill Lee announced his intention to call the General Assembly back for an extraordinary or “special” session.
Response to the idea of a special session to address public safety differed drastically. Lt. Governor & Speaker of the Senate Randy McNally expressed an open mind to Governor Lee’s proposal. Contrastingly, Speaker of the House Cameron Sexton and other members of House leadership were quick to denounce any Extreme Risk Protection Order or “red flag” legislation. As the summer progressed, it was actually Republican rank-and-file members in both chambers who definitively dashed Governor Lee’s initial proposals.
The governor used the time after session to meet with members in small groups at the Executive Residence and other places to discuss his ideas and press for action. Save a few, rank-and-file Republicans either made it clear they would not support any “red flag” bill, expressed a range of concerns about such policies such as due process, or questioned whether immediate changes were necessary. Some were so bold as to request that Governor Lee retract his public call for a special session before the official proclamation could be issued.
On August 8, Governor Lee issued a proclamation officially setting the special session to begin on August 21 at 4:00 p.m. Central Time. The proclamation limits the subjects on which lawmakers may file bills and includes:
- Mental health resources, providers, commitments, or services.
- School safety plans or policies.
- Healthcare providers’ duty to warn about potential violent offenses.
- Offenses of committing acts of mass violence or threatening to commit acts of mass violence.
- Reports from the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation regarding human trafficking.
- Identification of individuals arrested for felonies.
- Law enforcement’s access to criminal and juvenile records.
- Law enforcement’s access to information about individuals subject to mental health commitment.
- Information about victims of violent offenses.
- Stalking offenses.
- Measures encouraging the safe storage of firearms, which do not include the creation of penalties for failing to store firearms safely.
- Temporary mental health orders of protection, which must be initiated by law enforcement, must require a due process hearing, must require the respondent to undergo an assessment for suicidal or homicidal ideation, must require law enforcement to prove its case by clear and convincing evidence, must require that an order of protection be reevaluated at least every 180 days, and must not permit ex parte orders.
- The transfer of juvenile defendants aged 16 and older to courts with criminal jurisdiction, which must include appeal rights for the juveniles and the prosecuting authorities.
- Limiting the circumstances in which juvenile records may be expunged.
- Blended sentencing for juveniles.
- Offenses related to inducing or coercing a minor to commit an offense.
- The structure or operations of state or local courts.
- Making appropriations sufficient to provide funding for any legislation that receives final passage during the extraordinary session.
The proclamation’s release, unsurprisingly, came with a nearly collective groan from the Republicans in the legislature and words of disappointment from Democrats who did not believe the call was broad enough to discuss a full slate of policy ideas. Each chamber set narrow bill-filling periods. The House set its deadline for August 18 and the Senate set its for August 21 at 6:00 p.m. Central Time. A number are worth elevating:
SB7002/HB7016 – Threats of Mass Violence
Senator Ferrell Haile (R-Gallatin) and Representative Mark Cochran (R-Englewood) have filed a bill relevant to threats of mass violence. Specifically, it creates a Class E felony offense should anyone recklessly threaten to commit an act of mass (two or more people) violence by any means of communication. If the offense involves a threat to commit an act of mass violence on the property of a school; house of worship; or a federal, state, or local government, then a violation is elevated to a Class D felony. Read SB7002/HB7016 here.
SB7001/HB7002- Fire Alarms Activated by Shooter
Senator Ferrell Haile (R-Gallatin) and House Majority Leader William Lamberth (R-Portland) have filed a bill that requires local education agencies to develop a policy to direct how students, teachers, substitute teachers, and staff are to respond when a fire alarm is activated on school premises outside of a scheduled use, specifically if the fire alarm was activated by the presence of a shooter. Read SB7001/HB7002 here.
HB7004- Release of Person from Mental Health Facility
A bill filed by House Majority Leader William Lamberth (R-Portland) requires the court or chief officer who orders a defendant’s release from a mental health facility to notify the law enforcement agency that originally transported the defendant to the mental health facility. Read HB7004 here.
HB7011- Firearms Used for Mass Violence
Representative Antonio Parkinson (D-Memphis) filed a bill that makes a person who illegally transfers a firearm to a minor criminally responsible for any resulting act of mass violence or a threat of mass violence in which the minor threatens to use the firearm. Read HB7011 here.
HB7023- Law Enforcement Officers in Schools
Representative Scott Cepicky (R-Culleoka) filed a bill that authorizes a law enforcement agency to assign a law enforcement officer to serve as a school resource officer at a school within a local board of education’s control that has not entered into a memorandum of understanding with a law enforcement agency to assign a school resource officer to the school. Read HB7023 here.
Notes on House Membership
The House is composed of a supermajority of Republicans, but a few post-session election events are notable. Representative Justin Jones (D-Nashville- District 52) was reappointed to his seat after being expelled. Since the first regular session, he, along with fellow expelled (and soon after reappointed) member Representative Justin Pearson (D-Memphis-District 86), easily won their respective special elections. As a result, each will serve as a member of the body during the special session.
Near the end of regular session in April, former Representative Scotty Campbell (R-Mountain City) resigned amid allegations of misconduct involving an intern. Former Representative and House Commerce Chairman Timothy Hill (R-Blountville) won the appointment to the vacant seat and later was victorious in the ensuing special election. Therefore, he will serve as well.
In June, Representative Bill Beck (D-Nashville-District 51) passed away after suffering a heart attack. Anthony Davis, a local entrepreneur, was appointed to fill the vacancy, but after campaigning for the remaining term, he was defeated in the special election primary in what many saw as an upset by progressive organizer Aftyn Behn. However, until the general election is held, Davis will serve as the District 51 representative during the special session.
Special Session Outlook
Overall, it is expected that many House bills will find themselves without Senate companions, spelling instant procedural failure. If conventional wisdom holds, legislation that is indirectly or tangentially related to gun safety stands a reasonable chance of success through the legislative gambit, and those that directly address the same subject or are traditional gun control policies stand little chance of gaining the necessary majority of votes. While it is particularly difficult to gauge how long a special session will last, many members are anxious to gavel out by the end of the week. Extensive protests by various groups with differing positions are expected. The Bass, Berry & Sims government advocacy team will continue to monitor this fluid situation for developments and provide pertinent information to clients.