Four days before The Covenant School mass shooting, Reps. Sam Whitson and Darren Jernigan wrote a letter asking Gov. Bill Lee to form an extreme risk task force to “temporarily separate” high-risk people from their guns.
They’d started working on a plan in late 2022 for an extreme risk protection order bill and debated the best time to send the letter to the governor. Two days after the March 27 murder of six people, including three 9-year-olds, at the Nashville private Christian elementary school, Whitson personally handed the letter to Lee.
“It is imperative Lee call a special session as quickly as possible and that crafted legislation concerning mental health and gun violence be in place to help maximize the chances of passing this important legislation in both chambers of the legislature,” Whitson, a Franklin Republican and retired Army colonel, and Jernigan, an Old Hickory Democrat, said in a statement.
(READ MORE: Chattanooga private schools consider security following Nashville shooting)
The bipartisan duo would still like to see a task force come up with a recommendation in advance of a special session.
The night of the Legislature’s April 21 adjournment, after it declined to take up the governor’s proposed order of protection plan, Lee said he would call a special session.
It appeared a May date would be chosen, but late August is starting to look more likely, which would give the governor time to form a task force and gain some momentum before lawmakers return to Nashville.
It’ll also allow time to win support, especially in the House, where Republicans were immediately cool the governor’s proposal, calling it a non-starter.
The Governor’s Office said Thursday it received the bipartisan letter but didn’t say whether it affected Lee’s decision, although he will work with lawmakers in the coming months.
Spokesperson Jade Byers said “broad support” exists for a “meaningful solution” to take weapons from dangerous people while maintaining the constitutional rights of law-abiding residents. The Governor’s Office offered lawmakers a list of dates for the session — from May through August — and based on feedback from leadership, it will probably be after July 4.
(READ MORE: What some Tennessee teachers say needs to change for safer schools)
The bill the governor sent out the last week of the session — which failed to gain a sponsor — reflects the Whitson-Jernigan letter, seeking a temporary order with due process to confiscate guns from people considered a high risk for committing suicide or harming others.
The two point out Tennessee ranks ninth nationally for the rate of gun violence and 12th for gun suicides and attempts, with 718 people, many of them rural veterans, choosing to kill themselves with guns each year.
“Most tragically, guns are now the leading cause of death for Tennessee children and young people,” their letter states.
Indiana and Florida, under Republican administrations, passed extreme risk order laws.
(READ MORE: Tennesseans support ‘red flag’ gun laws in name of school safety)
The Whitson-Jernigan letter notes a task force could hear from suicide prevention advocates, veterans groups, law enforcement, domestic violence service providers, gun owners, anti-violence groups, faith communities, child safety workers, pediatricians, psychologists and psychiatrists. That falls in line with House Speaker Cameron Sexton’s comments at the end of the session that lawmakers need to hear from groups statewide.
The Whitson-Jernigan duo “genuinely” believes the state could take “multiple” steps to lower the state’s gun death and injury rate, the letter says.
Other lawmakers such as Republican Rep. John Gillespie of Bartlett are ready to push for change, too, especially after an incident in which a man armed with an AR-15 opened fire outside Fox-13 News in Memphis on Tuesday. Although bullets broke through the entry to the reception desk, the man failed to gain entry, and no one was injured.
Though he doesn’t have the clout he once did, former Republican U.S. Sen. Bill Frist wrote a column for Forbes Magazine Thursday calling for 10 major changes, including restrictions on high-capacity magazines and military-style weapons.
Jernigan said of the special session, “we need to have some form of crafted legislation ready to go so we’re not sitting around twiddling our thumbs.”
Read more at TennesseeLookout.com.