New bill: Gov. Lee backs new gun-reform legislation in 11th-hour push

In an 11th-hour push, Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee is backing legislation for an order of protection law, which would allow courts and law enforcement to temporarily remove firearms from people for up to 180 days if a judge finds a person poses a "current and ongoing" risk of serious harm to themselves or others.

Lee on Wednesday called for lawmakers to vote on the bill before wrapping finishing the current legislative session, saying "we owe Tennesseans a vote" in the wake of the Covenant school shooting that killed three children and three staff members.

"To be specific, I’m proposing that we improve our state’s law so that it protects more Tennesseans andreaches more individuals who are struggling and in need of mental health support," Lee said. "There is broad agreement that this is the right approach. It should be that simple. But sadly, it’s not."

In a video address, Lee said "political groups began drawing their battle lines before the bill was even completed."

Lawmakers are now racing toward a session end after weeks of contentious gun-reform protests at the state Capitol, with both chambers expected to pass the budget on Wednesday. The majority of Republican lawmakers have been hesitant of, if not outright opposed to, significant gun access legislation.

Still, they could choose to stay longer to deal with gun legislation that has been called for by bipartisan communities in Nashville and beyond.

"These are the moments for which the people of Tennessee elected us to listen and to act," Lee said. "I’m not saying it’s easy, but it is possible when we’re talking about the safety of our children, our teachers and innocent lives. The only thing standing in our way is politics – on both sides of the aisle."

The proposal does not include emergency "ex parte" hearings, the mechanism many other states use when determining emergency firearm revocation, according to a copy of proposed legislation obtained by The Tennessean on Wednesday.

The legislation would instead allow law enforcement to file a court petition for a temporary mental health order if someone has threatened or attempted suicide or homicide, or "places another in reasonable fear of violent behavior and serious physical harm." If the order is granted, the court must require relevant mental health treatment.

Gov. Bill Lee responds to questions during a news conference Tuesday, April 11, 2023, in Nashville, Tenn. Lee held the news conference to talk about gun control legislation and an executive order to require information for background checks on gun purchases to be updated more rapidly. (AP Photo/George Walker IV)
Gov. Bill Lee responds to questions during a news conference Tuesday, April 11, 2023, in Nashville, Tenn. Lee held the news conference to talk about gun control legislation and an executive order to require information for background checks on gun purchases to be updated more rapidly. (AP Photo/George Walker IV)

In the proposed bill, a court hearing must be held between three and five days after the court petition is received, except in limited circumstances. In no event should the hearing be held more than 10 days after the petition is filed. Court-appointed attorneys are written into the proposed bill, and the respondent would have a chance to challenge the allegations in court.

Related: Gov. Bill Lee calls for 'order of protection law' to keep guns away from dangerous individuals

The person would also be required to undergo a mental health evaluation prior to the hearing.

If the court finds an order should be issued, the respondent would be required to "terminate physical possession of all firearms" within 48 hours and would also be blocked from purchasing firearms and ammunition for the length of the court order.

The proposal mirrors existing legal framework found in Tennessee code in other limited circumstances, including domestic violence crimes.

"In Tennessee right now, if a husband threatens to hurt his wife, an order of protection would temporarily restrict his access to weapons to protect the spouse," Lee said. "If that same man threatens to shoot himself or a church or a mall, our proposal will provide that same level of protection to the broader public."

Advocates against domestic violence have in recent years called for stronger order of protection laws in Tennessee, arguing a legal loophole exists when the court orders a person to give up their guns, but law enforcement don't follow up to confirm if they actually have done so.

The law doesn't require a person turn over their firearms to law enforcement but rather to any third party, and the person would be subject to a new hearing if they don't turn firearm "dispossession" paperwork in under proposed time limits.

Under the new proposal, it would be a Class E felony for a third party to return the firearms or purchase new firearms for a person they know is under a mental health order of protection.

More: Lack of enforcement on Tennessee's domestic violence gun laws invites violence, advocates say

Lee last week called for lawmakers to bring similar legislation in the wake of the deadly shooting at The Covenant School on March 27.

The governor has for weeks reiterated his position that he believes people who are a danger to themselves or to others should not have access to weapons.

It remains to be seen whether the Lee-backed proposal will have legs in the legislature, where a number of Republicans have criticized portions of existing order of protection laws elsewhere.

Lt. Gov. Randy McNally on Wednesday signaled his support for the proposal, calling order of protection laws an "extremely delicate balance" to strike while considering second amendment rights.

"I believe that balance has been struck with this proposed Temporary Mental Health Order of Protection. Other states that have attempted this balance have fallen short to one extent or another by failing to provide real due process and protect against false complaints," McNally said in a statement. "There will be no 'ex parte' aspect to this order whatsoever. The subject will be notified and has the opportunity to defend themselves. The subject will have access to a free court-appointed attorney or can retain the counsel of their choice. Anyone who is determined to make a false of the frivolous report would be guilty of aggravated perjury, a felony."

McNally noted any order would be temporary and "cannot be held against the subject in the future."

Lee distances proposal from other states' 'extreme risk' laws

At least 19 states have passed some version of extreme risk laws, also known as gun violence restraining order or red flag laws, a term that is considered political poison by Republicans and has been carefully avoided in Tennessee in recent days.

Lee on Wednesday called "red flag" a "toxic political label meant to draw lines in the sand so nothing gets done."

The details of this type of law vary, but the basic building blocks of extreme risk protection orders include an emergency hearing triggered by a report of an impending threat or danger. Some states allow family, health care professionals and law enforcement to seek an ERPO. More conservative laws, like the legislation Florida passed in the wake of the Parkland shooting, only allow law enforcement to seek the orders.

These emergency hearings are often held ex parte, meaning a judge can make a decision without the party in question being present. If a judge finds reasonable evidence the person is a threat to themselves or others, they can order firearms be confiscated for a short period of time, ranging from six to 14 days in current laws. A full hearing is then scheduled to consider terminating or extending the temporary order.

Lee on Wednesday said other order of protection laws "don't strike the right balance of preserving rights and protecting society."

Some Republicans lawmakers in recent days had floated the possibility of strengthening state laws around involuntary commitment, a line of thinking Lee sharply criticized in his Wednesday address.

"It's not the best way," Lee said.

Tennessee Democrats attempted to file a similar order following the Covenant shooting, but it was blocked in a procedural vote from going into committee debate by Tennessee House Majority Leader William Lamberth, R-Portland.

Lamberth said he couldn't support any legislation including ex parte hearings, while bill sponsor Rep. Bob Freeman, D-Nashville, said emergency, rapid response to impending threats were at the heart of order of protection laws.

Bipartisan calls for lawmakers to take action as clock runs out on session

New polling shows strong bipartisan support in Tennessee for a similar law, while former Republican leaders, religious groups and even Nashville music industry heavy hitters have lobbied lawmakers in recent days on the issue.

Related: Amy Grant, Sheryl Crow and other top artists push lawmakers for gun reform measures

Tennessee clergy on Monday and thousands of people on Tuesday organized downtown Nashville protests calling for various gun-reform measures. Similar protests have defined the political mood in the Tennessee Capitol in recent weeks in the wake of deadliest school shooting in state history.

Meanwhile, the National Rifle Association this week asked people to call their Tennessee lawmakers to oppose potential extreme-risk laws.

A group of prominent faith leaders from the Nashville region urged the General Assembly to back Lee’s proposal in a letter early Wednesday afternoon.

“His (Lee) framework is a thoughtful approach to ensure we protect the constitutional rights of citizens while also helping to protect potential victims from dangerous individuals,” the letter said.

More: Amy Grant, Sheryl Crow and other top artists push lawmakers for gun reform measures

"As Americans, we also concur with the ideals of the founders that the proper role of government is to protect the life and liberty of its citizens.”

Most of the signatories represent organizations and churches affiliated with the Nashville-based Southern Baptist Convention, many of which lean more conservative.

They include Brent Leatherwood, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, which is the SBC’s public policy arm, and Randy Davis, president of the Tennessee Baptist Mission Board, which oversees the state Southern Baptist convention, including other pastors from various denominations.

Liam Adams contributed to this report.

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This article originally appeared on Nashville Tennessean: Tennessee Gov. Lee backs new gun-reform legislation in 11th-hour push