Tennessee’s Republican lawmakers ended the legislative session early on Friday without taking action on gun control, less than a month after a mass shooter at a Nashville school killed three adults and three 9-year-olds.
The state allows 90 days for legislative sessions over a two-year period, but lawmakers adjourned this year after just 27 days, even as thousands of students, parents, teachers, and others have decried the role that lax gun laws played in the shooting and called for reforms. An hour or two after lawmakers headed home, Tennessee’s Republican Gov. Bill Lee, whose wife’s friend died in the shooting, announced he would send them back for a special session to keep debating a response.
“There is broad agreement that dangerous, unstable individuals who intend to harm themselves or others should not have access to weapons,” Lee said in a statement.
Audrey Hale, the 28-year-old gunman who opened fire on Covenant School, a private Christian school, had legally purchased seven firearms and used three of them in the shooting, including an assault-style rifle. He was a former student and was reportedly under care for an emotional disorder.
Protesters are demanding an assault weapons ban, among other measures. Gov. Lee is pushing for a weaker bill—an “order of protection” law that would restrict firearms for individuals who are deemed a risk to others. The bill has been watered down compared with “red flag” laws in other states, requiring a waiting period and court hearing before removing someone’s guns. “We also share a strong commitment to preserving Second Amendment rights, ensuring due process and addressing the heart of the problem with strengthened mental health resources,” Lee added in his statement.
Republicans hold a supermajority in Tennessee’s legislature and said in recent days that they were too far into the session to consider the governor’s proposal and how it might affect the state budget. According to the New York Times, Speaker Cameron Sexton told reporters at a press conference that he believed it was important to wait and have more “conversations outside of the Capitol with the public,” to “let them have input on exactly how we should move forward.”
But he and his Republican colleagues seemed uninterested in public comment earlier in the session when they quickly expelled two Black Democratic lawmakers who protested on the House floor for gun control. At the time, Speaker Sexton compared the demonstration led by Reps. Justin Jones of Nashville and Justin Pearson of Memphis to the January 6 insurrection at the US Capitol. Jones and Pearson, both Democrats, had widespread support from their constituents and were soon reinstated by local officials.
Republican lawmakers also ignored public demands for police accountability this session after Memphis cops fatally beat Tyre Nichols, a 29-year-old photographer and FedEx worker; instead, they voted to dissolve two civilian police oversight boards. And despite the LGBT community’s outcry, they passed a bill that would stop transgender people from altering their gender on state IDs.
By packing up early, Republicans are also ignoring all the student protesters who walked out of class to call for swift gun control, the older activists who marched with child-size caskets, and the demonstrators who formed a three-mile human chain across Nashville. State Rep. Karen Camper, the House Democratic leader, questioned why her Republican colleagues were delaying responding to their demands. “Why would you make the choice to leave and then come back when you could just do it right here, right now?” she asked Republicans in a committee hearing on Friday, according to the New York Times. “People are yelling and screaming out to us to do something.”