It was in the final days of a knock-down, drag-out Tennessee General Assembly session this spring when Gov. Bill Lee made an unusually public political maneuver.
Though he didn't have a sponsor for the legislation lined up, Lee dropped proposed language for an extreme risk protection order, a law that would allow a judge to determine through a due process hearing that someone was temporarily too dangerous to have access to firearms.
"We have a proven solution that gets to the heart of the problem — an improved Order of Protection law to save lives and preserve the Second Amendment," Lee said.
"We owe Tennesseans a vote," Lee continued, urging lawmakers to consider the legislation before heading home to their districts in April.
Tennesseans didn't get one.
Republican lawmakers immediately balked at the proposal, both for its subject matter and the now-public pressure to extend the legislative session. Hours after they ended the session, Lee announced he would call them back to consider the proposal and other public safety measures.
In early summer, two polls showed broad bipartisan consensus among Tennesseans for increased gun regulations, a trend that mirrored national consensus, per a Fox News poll. The trend was also matched in thousands of public comments addressed to Lee after his office solicited public opinion on public safety issues.
But throughout the summer, Lee did little to engage with the public on the issue.
Ahead of special session: Conservative rhetoric, calls for censure
At the same time, Republican lawmakers continued to tell conservative media and firearms groups they wouldn’t consider a temporary transfer law. Vocal Second Amendment rights organizations ramped up their rhetoric toward Lee.
One group urged lawmakers to censure Lee for calling the special session. The Tennessee Firearms Association called Lee a "rogue, gun control" governor and posted a photo to social media linking him with President Joe Biden, the Tennessee Three and marxism — despite the fact that Lee gave the Volunteer State its broadest expansion of gun rights in history when he pushed through permitless carry in 2021.
— Tennessee Firearms Association (@TennFirearms) August 10, 2023
This was the fraught political climate that Lee, a conservative Republican, found himself in the wake of the deadly Covenant School shooting in March that left six people dead, including one of his wife's best friends.
Lee frequently met privately with lawmakers and occasionally told media he still had hopes for the proposal.
But at public appearances, he didn’t mention it. Even at a friendly Nashville Rotary event in June, where the opening prayer touched on gun violence, he sidestepped the issue in prepared remarks.
“If this is important, then you campaign on it."
It’s a move that has baffled some advocates in the state, and some political observers, as Lee has now called back reluctant Republican lawmakers with little to show for his original goal, even as he continues to take criticism on his right flank from pugilistic gun rights groups decrying Lee’s supposed “gun control agenda," despite Lee offering zero gun-specific administrative bills.
“If this is important, then you campaign on it. You talk about it. You go to the chambers of commerce, you go to the Rotary Clubs, you go to the Grand Divisions and talk to people about why this should happen,” said Daryl Carter, a political historian and associate dean at East Tennessee State University.
Vanderbilt University Poll co-director John Geer said Lee is working within the confines of Tennessee's “realities,” that the General Assembly can wield tremendous power and even the Tennessee Republican Party executive committee was pushing back on a special session.
“To Lee’s credit, he’s called the special session,” Geer said. “It’s not as explicitly about gun reform as many in the state would like, but you have to give him credit for doing this because there’s a lot of opposition. I think he’s going to force some action; exactly what kind of bills come out isn’t clear.”
An easier prediction? The session will likely make no one happy, Geer said, with Democrats frustrated with a lack of gun regulations and Republicans gritting their teeth at being summoned back to Nashville.
“He was getting a lot of pressure not to even call it because many of the state legislators don’t want to be forced into taking some votes that might make them look bad,” Geer said.
The cautionary tale of Debra Maggart
Lawmakers may be eyeing upcoming primaries with unease as gun issues remain in the headlines.
"This is going to put Republicans in the House and the Senate, especially those who are up for reelection next year, in a tough spot to vote on something the party has found to be anathema in recent decades," Carter said.
They only have to look back a decade to see the cautionary tale of Debra Maggart.
Maggart, once a Tennessee representative and Republican House caucus leader, was a lifetime National Rifle Association member with stellar ratings when she backed a compromise on a controversial “guns in trunks” bill. Within months, Maggart was out of a job after an NRA-backed campaign to successfully promote her primary candidate.
In a 2013 op-ed, Maggart decried “bully tactics” that scare lawmakers from openly discussing the merits of gun-related legislation.
“This stifling of discussion does not serve the interest of the public nor of the gun owners,” Maggart later said in an op-ed.
Political battles in Tennessee are now fought in party primaries, and even some of the legislature’s more powerful conservatives have narrowly fought off challenges from their right.
Geer pointed to Senate Majority Leader Jack Johnson, R-Franklin, who faced a strong primary challenge from conservative activist Gary Humbles.
“Johnson is somebody who is quite conservative, quite effective, and he just barely survived,” Geer said. “Those kinds of lessons stick with the state legislature.”
It’s not a uniquely Tennessee problem, nor a Republican problem, Geer said, but the "supermajority logic that forces politicians to the margins isn't good for the state."
“Supermajorities do two things that are problematic. One is they steamroll the minority party, and two, they do not pay attention to the average citizen,” Geer said. “They are paying attention to the extremes on the left or the right, worried about being primaried.”
"There’s a reason why we want to have things to be bipartisan. Neither party has all the answers. You want to bring these different perspectives to bear and listen to them, and right now there is very little listening."
Reach Melissa Brown at email@example.com.
This article originally appeared on Nashville Tennessean: Tennessee special session: Gov. Bill Lee and the politics of guns