As debate on gun confiscation has swirled across the state, Senate Speaker Pro Tempore Ferrell Haile, R-Gallatin, has worked through the summer to identify a proposal that could help prevent mass violence that Covenant families and the National Rifle Association can agree on.
“We’ve threaded a needle,” Haile said in an interview. “It’s taken three months of working with this and talking with lots of people to try and come to something that is meaningful, that will make a difference.”
Haile has drafted legislation to make any threat of violence against four or more people a felony, regardless of whether the violence could be committed with a firearm, vehicle, bomb, or other weapon. Penalties would be heightened if the threat is made against a school, church, government building, or other location where 250 or more people visit each day. Currently, threats of mass violence at a school are a misdemeanor offense.
“Folks are just kind of appalled that this is only a misdemeanor, which is not much different than a speeding ticket,” Haile said.
“This special session call is a result of the shooting at Covenant school. There’s no question about that. But that should not be our only focus,” Haile told The Tennessean. “We feel like if we change this, then we could have (if there had been a report made and had been followed up), then we could have gotten the Christmas bomber, the Covenant shooter, and the patient that killed a physician in Memphis just last week.”
Threats could be verbal, written or electronically communicated, and a defendant would have to have taken substantial steps toward carrying out the threat — like writing down a specific plan for an attack, or obtaining a weapon. What constitutes substantial steps would remain at the discretion of law enforcement and district attorneys.
“With the Covenant shooter, there’s quite a bit of written documentation — that’s a substantial step: they’ve made plans, this is what they’re going to do, this is how it’s to be done,” Haile said.
Defendants charged with the felony awaiting trial would be eligible for bail, at a judge’s discretion, as other felony defendants are, and no weapons would be confiscated from them.
“That’s due process,” Haile said.
But defendants will be required to undergo a mental health evaluation and behavioral risk assessment, on which the judge can base their bail decisions.
Law enforcement would have discretion on how to deal, for example, with a teenager who “spouts off without thinking.” The current misdemeanor charge for threats of violence against schools would remain on the books.
Haile said he has shared draft language with representatives of the NRA, and the group does not oppose the proposal.
“I had not been working with the NRA,” Haile said. “I had paid attention to the ideas they had put forward — they wanted due process, and they felt like it was an individual issue, not an across-the-board, everybody-who-owns-a-gun-is-a-suspect-type deal.”
He’s also met with Covenant parents to get their feedback on the draft bill, and they’re supportive, Haile said.
Haile has also sought feedback from a variety of state agencies, and does not anticipate opposition from the Tennessee Attorney General’s Office, the Department of Safety and Homeland Security, the Administrative Office of the Courts, the District Attorneys General Conference, and the Department of Mental Health.
He’s also spoken with several House members who are supportive, and he’s identified a House sponsor, though is not ready to name them.
“I anticipate there’ll be a lot of co-sponsors on these bills,” Haile said. “If this gets to the floor, I think it gets passed very easily.”
Other GOP bills will also raise penalties for gun crimes
Haile’s proposal comes as several Republican senators are planning to file bills to enhance penalties for gun-related crimes.
Sen. Page Walley, R-Savannah, will file a bill to create a mandatory five-year minimum sentence for using a firearm while committing a crime, mirroring federal law. Walley says the discrepancy “disincentivizes criminals from committing federal crimes with firearms and leaves a loophole for violent criminals to avoid a longer sentence.”
Sens. Paul Rose, R-Covington, and Brent Taylor, R-Memphis, plan to propose bills to enhance felony penalties for possession of stolen guns and guns with altered serial numbers, and selling or transferring guns to people who are prohibited from owning them.
“Crime in Memphis is out of control, and this special session is an opportunity to look at how the state can help address crime and protect our citizens,” Taylor said.
Hundreds of Memphis residents submitted comments to Gov. Bill Lee calling for action to address crime in Shelby County during the special session.
Haile is also working on a bill to expand the number of health care professionals who will have a duty to warn law enforcement if their patient becomes a risk of harm to themselves or others. Currently, state law requires psychiatrists to warn of threats of violence. Haile plans to propose to have the duty to warn protocol also apply to physicians, physicians assistants, and nurse practitioners.
Walley is also planning to file a bill to clarify how law enforcement and courts are to be informed when a patient who lives in their community is committed or released from a mental institution. Currently, institutions only alert law enforcement about commitments in their own jurisdiction. If a patient lives in a different county, law enforcement is not notified.
Reach reporter Vivian Jones at email@example.com or on X and Threads at @Vivian_E_Jones.