Tennessee legislature hits snag in efforts to pass stricter gun control

“If we go home and we haven’t addressed gun safety in a meaningful way … we would have committed a serious disservice to the state of Tennessee," Tennessee Senate Minority Leader Raumesh Akbari told theGrio.

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A chasm remains in the legislative push for stricter gun control laws in Tennessee after two Black lawmakers part of the Tennessee Three were expelled for protesting gun violence in the state. 

Republican state lawmakers are making moves to shorten the original time frame of the current legislative session. According to Democratic Tennessee Senate Minority Leader Raumesh Akbari, the session was initially slated to conclude by the end of April.

NASHVILLE, TN – OCTOBER 05: Rep Raumesh Akbari speaks at the Democratic Fundraiser at City Winery Nashville on October 5, 2016 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Beth Gwinn/Getty Images)

“Now we are going to pass our budget next week, a couple of days earlier than we thought,” Akbari told theGrio. 

As the window quickly closes to pass gun control measures, the Memphis senator acknowledged, “Right now, we don’t have a bill before us that Republicans have agreed on for gun safety or reform.” 

The Tennessee Democratic caucus has proposed five bills, including a ban on assault weapons, a new red flag law, raising the age to 21 to purchase a firearm, and establishing gun permits and background checks. 

Earlier in the week, there was an expectation of “great progress” in this remaining month of the Tennessee legislature, according to Democratic State Rep. Yusuf Hakeem of Hamilton County on stiffening gun laws there. 

Hakeem told theGrio that there was a glimmer of hope as the political pressure from the White House and the court of public opinion appeared to move Republican leadership to be open to some action on gun reform.

NASHVILLE, TN – MARCH 30: Protesters gather inside the Tennessee State Capitol to call for an end to gun violence and support stronger gun laws on March 30, 2023 in Nashville, Tennessee. A 28-year-old former student of the private Covenant School in Nashville, wielding a handgun and two AR-style weapons, shot and killed three 9-year-old students and three adults before being killed by responding police officers on March 27th. (Photo by Seth Herald/Getty Images)

Vice President Kamala Harris traveled to the state last week as the gun control issue melded into an issue of race when Reps. Justin J. Pearson and Justin Jones – both Black and in their 20s – were expelled from the legislative body for protesting on the floor for stricter gun laws.

Both were reinstated by their districts earlier this week. 

During her remarks at Fisk University, Harris slammed arguments long used by Republicans for not passing meaningful gun reform. 

“Let’s not fall for the false choice — either you’re in favor of the Second Amendment or you want reasonable gun safety laws,” said the vice president. “We can and should do both.” 

While in Tennessee, Vice President Harris met privately with Jones, Pearson, the white member of the Tennessee Three Rep. Gloria Johnson (who was not expelled), other elected officials and young advocates.

Republican Governor Bill Lee signaled there was hope for bipartisan action on gun control as he led mostly disgruntled GOP state lawmakers to accept the possibility of moving toward enacting a red flag law.

A red flag law would permit a state court to order the temporary removal of firearms from a person they believe may present a danger to others or themselves.

Prior to the change of events in the legislative session, Rep. Gloria Johnson told theGrio she was somewhat optimistic about passing the legislation. “At least he’s asking for it to be discussed,” she said.

Justin Pearson, Gloria Johnson, D-Knoxville, and Justin Jones, D-Nashville, speak before marching to the Shelby County Board of Commissioners meeting in Memphis, Tenn., on Wednesday, April 12, 2023, where it is expected Pearson will be reinstated to his position in the Tennessee House. (Chris Day /The Commercial Appeal via AP)

The call by Democrats to pass a red flag law and eventually embraced by the Republican governor comes after three children and three adults were murdered in a mass shooting at The Covenant School in Nashville.

Tennessee has some of the loosest gun laws, such as open and concealed carry without a permit. The Volunteer State has a strong gun lobby comprised of four gun manufacturers that have weighed down movement on more gun control measures.

Senator Akbari acknowledged that prior gun laws Republicans supported, like arming school teachers, would not have worked as one or two of the employees of the Covenant School reportedly carried guns for the protection of the school, and yet that did not thwart the shooter from taking six lives.

As for the possibility of not passing meaningful gun legislation, she said, “If we go home and we haven’t addressed gun safety in a meaningful way … we would have committed a serious disservice to the state of Tennessee.”

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