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Public comments ahead of Tennessee special session show majority support tighter gun controls


As the Aug. 21 special legislative session on gun control approaches, about 15,000 public comments have been submitted to Gov. Bill Lee’s office. The comments come from a public form posted on May 8 that asks citizens for their views about firearms legislation.

WUOT News received the responses from a public records request to the governor's office. As of July 12, the report shows about 15,000 comments so far (adjusted to remove duplicates) – with about 888 out-of-state responses. Many out-of-state commenters have either business or family in the state, or say they intend to move to Tennessee.

An overwhelming majority of the responses call for some kind of change to state firearm legislation, but the comments suggest varied reforms and different interpretations of the roots of gun violence. Supporters of a red-flag law often also sometimes suggested requiring universal background checks (mentioned 1,300 times), banning assault weapons (mentioned about 4,000 times), and increasing safe storage laws (mentioned 1,700 times). The phrase “no red flag” law appears about 130 times.

In the wake of the shooting at The Covenant School in Nashville, more than 5,000 Davidson County residents submitted comments to Lee’s office, the most from any county. Parents, teachers, community members, friends, neighbors and even children – many of whom were personally connected to those lost in the shooting – pleaded with legislators to do something.

“I am a mother of two children who attend The Covenant School….Our children have been exposed to unimaginable terror - terror that has scarred them both physically and emotionally,” wrote a grieving mother from Davidson County. “What happened on March 27 will haunt our family for the rest of our lives, but I refuse to sit back and allow for this to continue.”

More than 4,000 responses mentioned children, as citizens implored lawmakers to prioritize children’s lives in any new legislation. Many parents and community members also expressed fear and anxiety for their children returning to school in the fall.

Many Tennesseans also expressed a commitment to Second Amendment freedoms, while still petitioning legislators for “common sense” gun reform and increased public safety measures.

“We can comply with the Second Amendment and still have common sense regulation,” wrote one resident of Maury County.

A Greene County resident said, “I am a lifetime member of the NRA. I'm a proponent of the Second Amendment. But we need "Red Flag Laws" in Tennessee.”

Other responses showed a desire for increased safety but doubts that new legislation would solve the problem. Some also feared that increased legislation made at the upcoming special session could lead to increased Second Amendment infringements down the road.

A relative minority of responses adamantly opposed any increased regulation and reform, citing the sanctity of the Second Amendment and due process as justifications. More than 200 responses featured the direct phrase “shall not be infringed” as found in the Second Amendment, and some chastised Lee for his proposed gun reform legislation as a Republican governor.

“The right to bear arms shall not be infringed,” said a resident of Cumberland County. “I can not and will not support any effort to pass Red Flag Laws in the state of Tennessee.”

Many of those opponents of gun reform also expressed support for additional funding for mental health resources.

Since Lee first announced the proposed Extreme Risk Protection Order and the August special session, simmering controversy among state lawmakers and special interest groups has come to a boil. Lee’s proposed Extreme Risk Protection Order – known as a “red flag” law – is highly controversial among Republican lawmakers and Second Amendment activists.

“There is broad agreement that action is needed, and in the weeks ahead, we’ll continue to listen to Tennesseans and pursue thoughtful, practical measures,” Lee said in the press release announcing the form for public comment concerning the upcoming session.

The proposed legislation would grant judges the authority to temporarily restrict access to firearms for those deemed an extreme threat to themselves or others. Lee has consistently maintained that the legislation is not a “red flag” law and said the term is a “toxic political label meant to draw lines in the sand so that nothing is done.”

Despite Lee’s efforts to renounce the “red flag” label and rebrand the legislation as a temporary mental health order of protection, some Republican legislators have brandished the label in fierce opposition to Lee’s proposition.

“The Tennessee General Assembly will not pass any red flag law, period,” State Senate Majority Leader Jack Johnson (R - Franklin) said in an on-air interview with the Tennessee Star Report.

A select minority of state politicians have demanded in an online open letter that Lee cancel the special session, claiming the proposed legislation is unconstitutional and the special session will not improve public safety as Lee maintains.

Widespread attention to the special session has also attracted special interest groups and lobbyists on both sides of the debate to promote their legislative interests. Notably, the National Rifle Association has been advising state State Senator Ferrell Haile (R-Gallatin) with mental health regulation, while the citizen-run nonprofit Voices for Safer Tennessee has hired two lobbying firms to promote increased gun regulation.

There is no minimum time required for a special session; some have run for three or four days. A link to the public comment form can be found here.

Melanie is WUOT’s interim news director and Professor of Practice in journalism at the University of Tennessee, where she has taught reporting, editing and media entrepreneurship since 2012. Before teaching, Melanie worked for Bloomberg News for 11 years in a variety of cities and roles, from managing the multimedia desk to producing television. In between her journalism jobs, Melanie worked as director of information services at Opera America, putting her M.A. in musicology, from Montreal’s McGill University, to good use.