Analysis: The winners and losers of Tennessee’s special session

Gun Rights


Only four bills passed Tennessee’s special session. The move proved a victory for gun-rights groups while many others — House Republicans, Democrats and Covenant families — left deeply frustrated.

A feud between chambers. An ostrich egg prank. A challenged signs ban. A House member silenced.

Covenant families heartbroken. A physical confrontation on the House floor. A governor in out of the spotlight.

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Tennessee lawmakers kept busy at the state Capitol during the special legislative session Gov. Bill Lee called in response to a shooting at The Covenant School that killed six people, including three children. 

But few seriously engaged in a conversation around firearms that so many Tennesseans clamored for in the wake of the march shooting.

“It’s been a complete waste of time. It’s been a waste of taxpayer money,” said House Minority Leader Karen Camper, D-Memphis. “People expected us to do something to make the public safer. We did nothing.”

After six legislative days, what do the people of Tennessee get for their $348,000 session cost? A new report on human trafficking, an executive order codified into state law, expansion of a two-year-old gun lock program, permanent removal of sales tax on gun safes, and new money for mental health clinics.

In April, Lee had proposed a policy response aimed at keeping guns out of the hands of dangerous people. He even demanded a vote.

But his emergency protective order proposal faced mounting criticism from Republicans and gun rights groups and never got introduced during the special session.

Lee ultimately pitched seven other bills to the legislature. Only four passed — even as he sought to paint the session in a positive light.

Gun rights groups declare victory

While the session ended in devastation, frustration or disgrace for many, there was one clear winner: gun rights groups who want to block new restrictions on firearms.

Hours after adjournment, two major gun-rights groups declared victory. 

“Bill Lee’s special session ends with no meaningful results – which is a victory,” Tennessee Firearms Association Executive Director John Harris wrote in an email to supporters. “It is time to celebrate a victory in this skirmish but the war is not over.” 

Likewise, the National Rifle Association urged members to thank lawmakers as they “stood firm to defend Tennesseans’ Second Amendment rights.” 

“We are pleased to announce that all gun control legislation failed,” the NRA email said. “Although there were numerous anti-gun bills introduced and an attempt to force through several ineffective gun control measures.” 

Senate draws ire but holds firm

It’s not surprising for gun rights groups to see “no meaningful results” as a victory. But even Senate GOP leadership saw the bills as incremental, and used that to convince hesitant members to vote in favor of the limited agenda.

“There is no mandate in this bill, there is no requirement or anything,” Senate Majority Leader Jack Johnson, R-Franklin, told GOP caucus members during a bill review meeting. He was speaking of the legislation to provide free gun locks and tax incentives for gun safes. “This is to encourage you to safely store your weapon, and provide you with the means to do so should you choose to use them.”

“I got the impression that this is something we’re already doing,” said Sen. Bo Watson, R-Hixson, of the same bill. “It doesn’t require anybody to do anything.”

The bill sponsor, Sen. Adam Lowe, R-Calhoun, explained the free gun locks program had been in place for two years at the Department of Safety, and the agency already had a stockpile of 14,000 locks left over that have not yet been distributed.

“This just eliminates very low-hanging barriers,” Lowe explained. 

Parameters of the special session precluded lawmakers from even considering any bill to impose penalties on residents who do not safely store their guns.

On a different bill to codify an already legally binding deadline for courts to report cases to the Tennessee Bureau of Investigations for the state’s gun background check system, Johnson again told hesitant colleagues that the bill would make no effective change.

“Again, this is in effect. It’s working very well. There haven’t seemed to be any issues with it,” Johnson said.

It was clear early on that several senators – including some committee chairs – felt that simply coming to Nashville for the special session was compromise enough.

“I didn’t really want to be here in the first place,” Sen. Mark Pody, R-Lebanon, said during the same bill review meeting. “I don’t want to go much more on giving to the House.”

“Just tell them they’re lucky to get the three bills we gave them,” agreed Sen. Rusty Crowe, R-Johnson City.

Their urgency to get out of town was on public display as Senate committee after Senate committee tabled dozens of bills in committee hearings that in some cases lasted mere seconds.

Even so, after adjournment, Lt. Gov. Randy McNally, R-Oak Ridge, declared the session a success.

“I think there’s a lot in there that is beneficial to the safety of students and people in Tennessee,” he said. “And I think we can also improve on that in January when we have more time.” 

Although the House passed dozens of bills, the Senate clearly outmaneuvered the House and got to leave town far more on its terms.

“There are going to be disagreements among themselves because they don’t need to close ranks” due to their supermajority power, said John Geer, a political scientist and co-director of the Vanderbilt University Poll. “This lack of competition allows the battles to boil over within the party, because that’s where the competition lies. They don’t have to worry about competing with the Democrats.”

Covenant families feel sting of inaction

While lawmakers saw political wins and losses, parents of Covenant School children felt the sting over a lack of action in a deeply personal way.

“Today, we will go home and we’ll look at our children in the eyes — many who were sheltered from gunfire that tragic day,” Covenant mom Mary Joyce said. “They will ask what our leaders have done over the past week and a half to protect them. As a mother, I’m going to have to look at my nine year-old in the eye and tell her: nothing.”

Throughout long days of legislative hearings, Covenant School families wearing the school’s red colors made their presence known, offering testimony from their own children’s experiences during the shooting, and reading statements on behalf of the families whose children died.

Despite their constant presence, most of the bills supported by the parents’ groups were either never introduced, or were scuttled in a deal struck between the House and the Senate.

“Republicans in the legislature loosened gun laws for a decade and now they’re ignoring grieving families who are begging for new solutions to protect their kids from gun violence,” said Senate Minority Leader Raumesh Akbari, D-Memphis. “I’ve cried with parents whose children were killed by gunfire in Memphis. I prayed with moms from The Covenant School. They deserve better from their elected representatives.”

Governor in hiding?

Lee said after adjournment that he is hopeful and encouraged by the results of his special session, citing new funding for mental health and four of his seven bills that lawmakers passed. 

But he did so from a conference room within the Tennessee Tower — a state building away from the action at the Capitol and the Cordell Hull Legislative Office Building.

While lawmakers were dragged back to Nashville at the governor’s request, Lee declined to publicly engage with them – or publicly fight for his own proposals – even traveling to West Tennessee during the session.

And when a stalemate emerged between the House and Senate – which ultimately killed three of the governor’s bills – Lee stepped back to let lawmakers hash out their differences. While he did hold a meeting Tuesday morning with House and Senate leadership (during which a deal was not struck), Lee never asked Senate leaders to consider reopening committees to consider even his own three scuttled bills.

“I recognize that the job the governor has is to call this session to put forth his ideas, and the job of the legislature is to decide which bills to move forward,” Lee said.

Ostrich egg on their faces

Meanwhile, House Republican leadership stood out as having a prime opportunity to claim moral victory as they held marathon committee hearings, heard emotional testimony, and passed dozens of bills — however controversial some proved — during the six legislative days. 

Despite the hard work many put in during the session, the House will likely be remembered more for the controversial sign rules, pranks, antics and ongoing skirmishes — some physical — between Republicans and Democrats.

House members provoked a constitutional lawsuit from the ACLU after adopting the rules to ban the public from signs in House galleries. A committee chair, Lowell Russell, R-Vonore, ordered state troopers to remove three mothers quietly holding signs from a hearing room, citing the new rules. A judge quickly barred their enforcement.

“Trying to control dissent does not work for a democracy,” Geer said. “I suspect many of the people in the gallery won’t forget this anytime soon.”

The new rules also allowed the body to vote to silence a member if they spoke out of turn, off topic, or impugn another member’s reputation – a move clearly aimed at tamping down the soapbox of three Democratic members who faced expulsion earlier this year.

But the move again threw Rep. Justin Jones, D-Nashville, into the national media spotlight when Republican members voted to silence him for the remainder of a day, in what Democrats said was an unfair application of the rules.

Meanwhile, Jones unsuccessfully sought a no-confidence vote in House Speaker Cameron Sexton, R-Crossville, and engaged in the type of political theater he had used to his advantage as an activist.  

As the session came to an end, Jones leapt onto the House Speaker’s dais and repeatedly banged the speaker’s gavel down, yelling, “this House is out of order! This House is out of order!” 

Then, there’s the ostrich egg. 

Frustrated by senatorial obstinance on bills, the House Republican Caucus posted a (now deleted) photo of an ostrich egg on the Senate Speaker’s dais on social media, saying it must be “egghausting” for the Senate to table so many bills in committee. 

Senators were infuriated, and House Republican Caucus Chair Jeremy Faison, R-Cosby, sent an apology email the next morning. 

“You should be apologizing to the moms that were unjustly removed!” responded Sen. Paul Bailey, R-Sparta.

But later, House GOP leadership found room to admonish Democrats for decorum breaches. The caucus’s official Twitter account called the House a “a place for serious legislators to do the business of the people.” The account apparently deleted its ostrich egg post before lecturing Democrats on “acting like an adult.”

House Minority Leader William Lamberth, R-Portland, later noted “a couple of bad apples trying to spoil the bunch.”

“It’s unfortunate that it keeps getting there, but you know, it is what it is. I mean, y’all can judge for yourself,” Sexton said.

Geer said Republicans have criticized younger Democrats for acting as “activists” in the statehouse, but the supermajority power has boxed the minority party into a corner.

“They’re left only with their voice,” Geer said of Democrats who increasingly rile the GOP caucus. “There isn’t a deal to be struck, they’re not bringing them into a policy conversation.”

The session ended with a physical confrontation between Sexton and Rep. Justin Pearson, D-Memphis, after Pearson, Jones, and other Democrats surrounded Sexton as he came off the Speaker’s dais after adjournment. 

Amid jostling from his security, Sexton appeared to make physical contact with Pearson, Sexton turned back and shook his finger toward the Memphis Democrat’s face, shouting something unintelligable amid the clamor. Pearson, skirted to the side of the scrum by several Republican lawmakers, then exchanged words with Lamberth.

“I’m very disappointed that we didn’t get more done in this special session,” Lamberth later said. “In the House, we had a lot of bills that got left on the table that I hope will still be taken back up in January to help families in Tennessee be safer.”

Lamberth said he feels Tennesseans are “just a little bit safer,” due to the measures passed, “but not enough.”

Long term impact

The long-term impact from the session may not be quantifiable until the next election cycle, Geer said. Can moderate Republicans or even a few Democrats snap up a few seats? A handful of seats likely won’t materially effect the General Assembly immediately, but he said it would send a “very strong signal.”

“They could show there is vulnerability when you ignore public sentiment, and it can come back to haunt you,” Geer said. “Tennessee is a conservative state, but the mainstream conservatives are not feeling represented right now, let alone the Democrats and the moderates. It’s the super-conservatives getting representation.”

Meanwhile, when lawmakers return in January, House members may be asked to again adopt the legally challenged new chamber rules that were hashed out behind closed doors for the special session. If that happens – pending the outcome of the ACLU’s legal challenge – the public may be again barred from holding signs in House galleries

“We’ll have to vote on those as a body again,” Sexton told reporters. “We may tweak them again as we need to,” he added, noting that Congress has rules prohibiting signs — and phones — in the galleries.

While the special session on public safety sparked conversations on gun safety outside the legislature, and a few within, meaningful change still appears far away — and may be stifled by an influential gun rights lobby.

Nevertheless, Covenant parents have already pledged to return.

“We need legislators on both sides of the aisle to be able to have respectful, thoughtful debate regarding potential solutions to end gun violence,” Covenant mother Sarah Shoop Neumann said. “We will be back in January.” 

Angele Latham, and Kelly Puente contributed. 

Reach reporter Melissa Brown at mabrown@tennessean.com, and reach Vivian Jones at vjones@tennessean.com or on X and Threads @Vivian_E_Jones.

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