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Senate Judiciary Committee won’t take up gun bills in wake of church massacre


Senate Judiciary Committee won’t take up gun bills in wake of church massacre

Mar 30, 2023 | 7:00 am ET
By Sam Stockard
Senate Judiciary Committee won’t take up gun bills in wake of church massacre
Sen. Todd Gardnehire, R-Chattanooga, chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said he will not take up any more gun-related bills this legislative session. (Photo: John Partipilo)

On the heels of a mass shooting at a Nashville private school, Senate Judiciary Chairman Todd Gardenire said Wednesday gun-related bills won’t be taken up the rest of this legislative session.

Gardenhire called Gov. Bill Lee’s words “appropriate” in the wake of the shooting and noted he is “embarrassed” that some lawmakers are trying to make the Covenant School incident “a political issue and take advantage of a complete tragedy.” The Chattanooga Republican explained that lawmakers don’t know the shooter’s motive or whether a hate crime is involved.

“We will not hear any gun bills, anything related to gun bills this year. If they want to take them up next year, that’ll be fine,” Gardenhire said. “This committee is not gonna be turned into a circus by people with other agendas. The agenda on the table now is respecting the privacy of the victims’ families that were gunned down and let that healing process start.”

Gov. Lee released a video statement Tuesday saying one of the victims, Cindy Peak, was a friend of his wife, Maria, and was supposed to have dinner with her after filling in as a substitute at Covenant. He noted school director Katherine Koonce also was a longtime friend. 

But Lee shied away from calling for legislative action.

“We are enduring a very difficult moment. I understand there is pain. I understand the desperation to have answers, to place blame, to argue about a solution that could prevent this horrible tragedy,” Lee said. “There will come a time to ask how a person could do this. There will come a time to discuss and debate policy.”

The shooting event is catching the world’s attention, including that of Pope Francis, who issued a statement of condolence for the victims and families “affected by this senseless act of violence.”

But even as Democrats clamor for policy change in the wake of the shooting, with the clock running out on the first year of the 113th General Assembly, no new policy matters dealing with the school shooting are likely to be considered.

The Senate Judiciary Committee, which already passed legislation to lower the gun-carry age to 18 in Tennessee, will hold its final meeting next week, Gardenhire said. He noted Attorney General Jonathan Skrmetti reached an agreement with a California group to drop the age to 18 from 21 after determining he couldn’t defend the state in court. An East Tennessee U.S. District Court judge signed the order Monday, the same day three students and three staff members at The Covenant School were gunned down.

The Senate version of this legislation passed the Judiciary Committee with an amendment taking out long guns or rifles. The House version still contains rifles as being part of the “constitutional carry” law.

Gardenhire’s decision to stop gun-related bills from coming to his committee this year could affect legislation by Sen. Jeff Yarbro, D-Nashville, requiring people to secure weapons they leave in cars and boats as the number of guns stolen from vehicles escalates. People who fail to report stolen guns within 24 hours and those who don’t secure weapons could be charged with a Class C misdemeanor and required to take a gun safety course.

Advocates for the bill want people to report stolen guns so law enforcement will know another weapon is loose in the community and to aid investigations.

Other measures still floating in the Legislature include a bill to arm teachers if they have a conceal/carry permit issued by the state and a bill to allow any private citizen to make an arrest and possibly use a weapon if they see someone committing a crime.

But while Gov. Lee and most Republican lawmakers oppose moving on gun-related bills while the pain of the shooting incident is fresh, many Democrats believe bills should be passed this session in an effort to stop mass shootings.

“128 mass shootings in America this year and today is day 87 of the year 2023!” the Tennessee Black Caucus of State Legislators said in a statement. “When will enough be enough? Our ‘prayers’ need to become more thoughtful and intentional regarding this issue.”

Senate Minority Leader Raumesh Akbari pointed out on the day of the killings that “faith without works is dead.”

The caucus said it backs President Joe Biden’s call for Congress to pass a ban on assault rifles. Two of the weapons used in the Covenant shooting were AR-15s.

The group also opposes lowering the gun-carry age to 18 and adding long guns to the list of weapons people could carry openly.

Rep. Sam McKenzie, chairman of the black caucus, said Wednesday the church school proves “it can happen to anybody, anywhere” and noted he hopes the General Assembly will pass “something to say we get it.”

Neither Democrats nor the black caucus want to undermine the Second Amendment, the Knoxville Democrat said.
“But to have a gun that can push a hundred to 200 bullets in a minute, is that really what our forefathers wanted when they created the Second Amendment? Probably not. It would be the right to bear cannons,” McKenzie said.

In addition to opposing the bill to lower the gun-carry age to 18 will stall, despite the court order, McKenzie predicted Democrats will try to pass legislation to control military-type weapons and to enact red flag laws and keep guns away from mentally unstable people.

Rep. Gloria Johnson, D-Knoxville, has sponsored a red flag bill nearly every year she’s been in the Legislature but failed to pass it. She plans to run it next year, in addition to a safe weapon storage bill.

“The Antioch church, the Waffle House situation and the Covenant School situation, those could have prevented those incidents, because parents or someone close to all of those perpetrators were aware there were issues with mental health,” Johnson said, referring to recent mass shootings in Nashville.

A person closely related to a person suffering from mental instability would be able to petition the court to have the person’s guns taken.

The measure has failed in recent years when Republican lawmakers said they didn’t want to put law enforcement officers in the dangerous situation of trying to confiscate someone’s weapons.