Tennessee may soon join the 19 other states with some form of a so-called Red Flag law. At least, if Republican Governor Bill Lee gets his way.
On Wednesday, Lee publicly called on the Tennessee General Assembly to pass new “Order of Protection” legislation allowing a court to temporarily remove firearms from someone deemed a safety risk to themselves or others before the end of its session. He critiqued Red Flag laws in other states as overly broad and easily abused and pointedly avoided applying the same label to his proposal. In a video message, Lee called the bill he’s backing a “thoughtful, practical solution” and encouraged state lawmakers to eschew “politics” and “division” to get it passed.
“Throughout the last couple of weeks, I have worked with members of the General Assembly – constitutionally minded, second amendment protecting members – to craft legislation for an improved Order of Protection Law that will strengthen the safety and preserve the rights of Tennesseans,” Lee said. “We all agree that dangerous, unstable individuals who intend to harm themselves or others should not have access to weapons. And that should be done in a way that requires due process and a high burden of proof, supports law enforcement and punishes false reporting, enhances mental health support, and preserves the Second Amendment for law-abiding citizens.”
Lee’s involvement marks a rare instance of a Republican politician calling for new gun restrictions, particularly in a ruby-red state like Tennessee. Of the 19 states with some form of red flag law on the books, just two—Florida and Indiana—are unanimously controlled by Republicans.
It arrives against the backdrop of the Covenant School shooting in Nashville late last month, where an armed assailant murdered three children and three adults before being killed by responding law enforcement officers. That incident spurred raucous demonstrations at the state capitol from citizens and lawmakers demanding new gun legislation that disrupted floor proceedings. That disruption sparked a high-profile political battle that saw the expulsion of two Democratic state lawmakers for their participation in the ordeal.
Lee’s proposal was introduced through House Bill 1574 and Senate Bill 1564. Senator Heidi Campbell and Representative Bob Freeman, a pair of Nashville Democrats, are carrying the identical bills.
The bills would allow a court to issue a risk protection order against someone who poses a significant danger to themselves or others if there is “clear and convincing evidence” of that danger. Only a law enforcement officer or a relative can file a petition. If granted, the order would be valid for one year unless the petitioner re-files a request to have the order extended in a separate proceeding. The order may be extended for up to an additional year. Anyone who files false petitions for protection orders could face perjury charges under the proposal.
Governor Lee’s support for the proposal could satisfy some of those calling for the government to act to prevent future mass shootings. At the same time, it risks drawing the ire of many ardent gun-rights supporters who view Red Flag orders with suspicion.
The Firearms Policy Coalition responded to Lee’s video by broadly denouncing red flag laws.
“Red Flag Laws threaten ordinary Americans with potentially deadly encounters with police,” the group tweeted, quoting from one of its policy briefs. “The laws, as presently written, invite domestic terrorists to weaponize the court system to strip the rights of their enemies or political opponents. The laws deprive individuals of their right to due process of law before their rights are eliminated and property seized, a result that should offend anyone who values the Constitution and what it stands for.”
Gun-control advocates celebrated Lee’s proposal but made clear that they would not be satisfied with just an order of protection law.
“We’re optimistic about Governor Lee’s announcement, but we’re not going to let off the gas pedal,” Bobbi Sloan, a Tennessee Students Demand Action activist, said in a statement. “It’s long past time Tennessee lawmakers took action to keep us safe, and we’re hopeful that today’s call to action will give legislators the push they need to take life-saving action.”
It is unclear if any appetite exists for the bills among the supermajority Republican-controlled Tennessee legislature. Republican legislative leadership has been non-committal about working with the Governor on the order of protection bill. Lee acknowledged as much in his video message but called on state lawmakers to “rise above politics” and work together to get it done.
“We’ve done this before – the Governor’s office working together with the legislature to rise above politics and lead through division… to search our hearts and do that which I believe Tennesseans have elected us to do,” he said. “Tennesseans are depending on us.”