Tenn. special session produces drama, little movement on gun laws

Tennessee state Rep. Justin Jones (R), D-Nashville, speaks outside the White House in April along with colleagues Reps. Justin Pearson and Gloria Johnson after their expulsion. Jones was silenced again during this week's special session on gun safety. File Photo by Chris Kleponis/UPI
1 of 3 | Tennessee state Rep. Justin Jones (R), D-Nashville, speaks outside the White House in April along with colleagues Reps. Justin Pearson and Gloria Johnson after their expulsion. Jones was silenced again during this week's special session on gun safety. File Photo by Chris Kleponis/UPI | License Photo

Aug. 30 (UPI) -- Tennessee's special session on gun safety ended with some drama, but little legislative action in the wake of a mass shooting in March at a school in Nashville.

The House and Senate spent most of the weeklong session in a stalemate as many Senate committees gaveled to a close within moments of coming to order without debating any bills.


In the end, three bills passed, along with an appropriations measure.

One would create a sales tax exemption for gun safes and other safety devices. The second would broaden the window for courts to report information related to background checks to the Tennessee Bureau of Investigations from 30 hours to 72. The third, unrelated to firearms, would require the TBI to submit a report on human trafficking.

The Tennessee Firearms Association called the lack of action a "victory" in an email to subscribers.


Rep. Harold Love, D-Nashville, told UPI on Wednesday the session was unsuccessful, in part, because the focus on "public safety" was too narrow. Many of the bills proposed by his caucus "that specifically dealt with firearm purchases and ammunition" were not debated.

Love said he and his colleagues were often not allowed to ask questions about bills during committee meetings. And it was unusual that half of the gallery seating was dedicated to lobbyists, limiting the space for members of the public. Normally, lobbyists watch the proceedings on a TV in the Capitol rotunda.

"Why make this special provision for which lobbyists? Gun lobbyists?" Love said. "What does that say we're prioritizing? It creates an adversarial relationship with the general public."

The session also created something of a spectacle for the public.

Microphones were silenced. There was shouting, a walkout and at least one shove.

Jones silenced again

Reminiscent of the spring, when Rep. Justin Jones, D-Nashville, was expelled (and later re-elected) during a debate on gun policy, he was blocked Monday from speaking during the remainder of the special session.

House Speaker Cameron Sexton, R-Crossville, declared Jones out of order during the debate over House Bill 7023 by Rep. Scott Cepicky, R-Culleoka. The bill would authorize local law enforcement agencies to assign officers to any school that does not have a memorandum of understanding with an agency for a school resource officer.


Jones argued that more mental health professionals should be provided to schools rather than police.

Sexton said Jones was speaking "off topic" and the GOP majority voted to bar him from speaking for the rest of the session. Democrats left the chamber in protest.

"What we're seeing is this misapplication, this abuse of rules under the leadership of Speaker Cameron Sexton," Jones said in a statement on X, formerly known as Twitter. "What's happening is not Democratic. It is authoritarianism. The Capitol is surrounded by troopers. This does not look like a Democratic body anymore."

The move was enabled by a strict set of rules the House adopted at the beginning of the session. Sexton was given power to call representatives out of order at his own discretion. He also called for state troopers to block the public from the rotunda -- which is not normal protocol -- and banned anyone from having signs in the gallery or committee chambers.

Members of the public, including moms from the Covenant School, where the March shooting occurred, were escorted out by troopers if they held up signs.

The bill was one of a few advanced by either chamber during the session, but was tabled in the Senate.


Chaos in committee

Democrats trying to discuss a bill during a House Education Committee meeting said they were bypassed for the opportunity to speak.

The committee was debating a proposal Aug. 23, introduced by Rep. Chris Todd, R-Madison County, to allow anyone with an enhanced firearm permit to enter school grounds while armed without the permission of the principal. And the principal would not have the authority to ask them to leave.

Committee Chairman Mark White, R-Memphis, ignored Democrats' raised hands to recognize Republican Rep. Todd Warner's call to end the discussion.

"We've had our hands up since the beginning of this committee -- you recognized him when our hands were up," Jones called out. "We knew the games you play. Have the discussion for the people that have been waiting for this bill."

The committee erupted into crosstalk and shouts from onlookers. White said Warner was "on the list." He also derided Jones and Rep. Antonio Parkinson, D-Memphis, for "jumping up." White then recognized Parkinson on a point of order.

"With all due respect, that is a crock of crap," Parkinson said. "We had our hands up when we called the motion. ... You called on everybody else except for us two. That is wrong and that is disrespectful. If you want to run this bill and ram it down these people's throat you're doing exactly that."


Before the vote, White called a recess, muted Jones and attempted to have him removed. He was ultimately allowed to stay.

"The public is seeing how democracy is not being allowed to flourish and exist," Love told UPI, though he believed Gov. Bill Lee's intention to have meaningful debate in calling the special session was honest.

"How one-party rule is really not good for Tennessee in the sense of a super majority silencing debate before it even starts."

Republicans control both houses of the legislature and the governor's seat.

Ending with a shove

The gathering adjourned Tuesday with little action -- and more tension.

As Sexton was leaving the dais, Jones and Pearson stood at the foot of it with small signs and addressed the speaker. Jones' sign read, "Protect kids, not guns." As Sexton walked by, he dug his shoulder into Pearson and pushed him aside. He then turned and wagged his finger at Pearson and said something inaudible.


The incident was caught on camera by reporters.

Love saw the end of the encounter from a distance and will meet with Pearson and minority leader Rep. Karen Camper, D-Memphis, to discuss a resolution.

Sexton did not respond to UPI's calls for comment.

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