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Tennessee Senator prefers controls on military-type weapons, but gun bills not allowed

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Alex Wong

Few measures expected to pass Legislature

State Sen. Art Swann considers himself a gun enthusiast, but he believes this special session of the Legislature should be used to nip mass shootings in the bud, in part by restricting heavy firepower.

“I’d like to see us address the AK-47s, something that could shoot that many times in a few seconds, it’s something that doesn’t belong in anything but a military situation,” Swann said Monday hours before the start of the session called by Gov. Bill Lee to respond to killings at The Covenant School in south Nashville.

The Maryville Republican, who is likely to face primary competition in the next election, said he believes as long as high-capacity, military-type weapons are available to the public, they could be used to wreak havoc.

Those types of bills, though, aren’t being allowed in this special session because they lie outside the scope of the governor’s call, which focuses primarily on school safety, mental health and juvenile crime.

In that vein, groups such as Moms Demand Action and those representing Covenant School parents lobbied lawmakers heavily for strong gun storage rules, a red-flag law and beefed-up background checks for gun purchases. Women connected with Covenant School groups held signs outside the Senate chamber, but rallies were tame compared to past protests because of rules adopted to prevent violations of decorum and restrictions on entrance into the Capitol.

I’d like to see us address the AK-47s, something that could shoot that many times in a few seconds, it’s something that doesn’t belong in anything but a military situation.
Sen. Art Swann, R-Maryville

In contrast, a group dubbed Women for Gun Rights worked against potential gun restrictions Monday. Critics of firearms laws said some measures being considered are similar to those taken up in South American countries.

“Don’t Venezuela my Tennessee,” said Ryan Weaver, who identified himself as a Nashville musician and veteran.

Meanwhile, members of the hate group, the Proud Boys, unfurled a flag near the Capitol before standing along Martin Luther King Boulevard and getting into a confrontation with at least one passer-by.

No legislation affecting weapons, or the confiscation of guns, is expected to pass during this week’s session, and lawmakers are likely to send only a few bills to the governor’s desk.

Sen. Janice Bowling, a Tullahoma Republican, called for immediate adjournment after arguing that people’s rights could be abridged by numerous bills proposed for the special session. She also contended Tennessee is not facing an emergency and said lawmakers could come back in January and consider them.

The Senate clerk, however, pointed out she needed a resolution to bring an adjournment vote. State Rep. Bryan Richey, R-Maryville, sought adjournment in the House, as well, but acknowledged he would have to prepare a resolution and take it through the committee system. The House voted against suspending the rules to allow him to make the move.

No legislation affecting weapons, or the confiscation of guns, is expected to pass during this week’s session, and lawmakers are likely to send only a few bills to the governor’s desk.

In the Senate chamber, Sen. Jeff Yarbro, a Nashville Democrat, complained that numerous bills were filed but were not put on notice by the clerk’s office because they didn’t align with the governor’s call.

Yet Democrats’ bills weren’t expected to receive enough support for passage, and neither were many Republican bills.

Republican Sen. Frank Niceley of Strawberry Plains in East Tennessee said he planned to vote against nearly every bill because he felt the Legislature could get into trouble by rushing.

“You can’t handle a hundred bills in a week,” Niceley said.

Johnson to carry autopsy bill

Senate Majority Leader Jack Johnson confirmed Monday he will carry a bill sponsored in the House by Majority Leader William Lamberth that makes county medical examiner and autopsy reports of minor victims of violent crimes exempt from the public records law, unless parents allow them to be released to the public.

The Tennessee Coalition for Open Government opposes the bill. Autopsies of the three 9-year-olds killed at The Covenant School have been released, but no media outlets have reported on the details.

Johnson said he would confer with Senate members and see how well Lamberth does with the House bill before pushing it.

The Franklin Republican predicted a handful of bills would pass but declined to declare any measure is certain to become law. He refused to sponsor the governor’s order of protection bill, which would enable a court to order confiscation of weapons from people deemed dangerous to themselves and others.

Johnson and Lamberth are sponsoring a Lee Administration bill requiring court clerks to notify the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation in 72 hours of the final disposition of a criminal proceeding against a person. Gov. Bill Lee made an executive order requiring the change from 30 days to three days in the wake of The Covenant School shooting.

Sen. Ferrell Haile, R-Gallatin
Tennessee Lookout
John Partipilo
Sen. Ferrell Haile, R-Gallatin

A measure by Sen. Ferrell Haile, SB7002, that would crack down on threats to commit acts of violence could have a shot at passage. Haile, a Gallatin Republican, said Monday he has GOP caucus support for the bill, but he wasn’t certain he had the Senate Judiciary Committee’s backing to pass it.

The Senate Judiciary Committee, which is chaired by Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, is likely to be the toughest hurdle for bills during this special session.

Another bill sponsored by Haile, SB7008, requiring mental health professionals and licensed behavior analysts to notify potential victims and law enforcement of a real threat has a strong chance of passing too.

“The medical community is not pushing back against it,” Haile said.

The state already has a “duty to report” law for psychiatrists and mental health providers, but medical doctors aren’t covered.

“So many people are focusing on one event. We need to have a bigger picture,” Haile said, referring to incidents such as the Christmas Day bombing and the shooting of a Memphis physician.

Bills allowing minors age 16 and 17 to be transferred to adult court in cases of gun thefts are not expected to pass, including one sponsored by Rep. Mary Littleton, R-Dickson.

This story was originally published by the Tennessee Lookout.

Sam Stockard is a veteran Tennessee reporter and editor with the Tennessee Lookout, 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.
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