April 21, 2023 8:00am

Gun reform in Tennessee remains an elusive goal for advocates in a GOP-majority legislature

Power Poll results suggest wide gap between 'want to' and 'will do'

Photo of Chris Vass
Chattanooga, TN Correspondent

As state lawmakers prepare to end their legislative session — as soon as today — Chattanooga area leaders would not be surprised that the GOP super-majority sidestepped a last-minute appeal from Gov. Bill Lee on a gun safety proposal.

It was just weeks ago that a mass shooting at a private elementary school in Nashville claimed the lives of three children and three adults. Subsequently, the state House took the extraordinary step to expel two of three members who joined protesters in calling for gun reforms (both are reinstated). The national spotlight — and ridicule — were intense. Opinion polls released this week show strong public support for gun safety measures. And finally in the waning days of the session, the governor had urged lawmakers to support order of protection legislation that would keep firearms away from individuals who could harm themselves or others.

Lawmakers balked, but half of Power Poll members responding to this week’s survey called it.

In answer to the question: “Do you think the majority GOP legislature will agree to negotiate on such a proposal?” 50% said “no.” Legislators indicated this week they were concerned Lee’s proposal had not been fully vetted.

On the other hand, another 18% said “maybe next year.” Combined with the 27% who said “yes,” perhaps next year could see movement on this emotional, complicated issue. Of course, election year politics will undoubtedly play a significant role.

Hamilton County Commissioner David Sharpe, a Democrat, spared no words in assessing the Legislature’s inaction on “common sense” reforms.

He wrote legislative leaders lack “both the empathy and the political courage to take common sense action”on gun safety.

“The toxic combination of special interest cash, political ambition, and an absolute super majority has created an unaccountable sense of entitlement,” he wrote. “They will continue to ignore children, parents, and grandparents across the state who simply wish to never see a tragedy like this happen again. I count myself among these unheard parents.”

Mike Costa, president and CEO of Costa Media Advisors, also sounded the alarm over how the Tennessee General Assembly is functioning (or not).

“The GOP super majority in the people’s house has transformed our legislature to a body representing special interests — the gun lobby, culture war issues and whatever other issue the polls say will protect their seats,” he said. “Unfortunately it is all a well-played game with one goal, to retain power.”

B.W. Ruffner, retired physician and past president of the Tennessee Medical Association, noted that supermajorities held by either party squelches "healthy debate of complicated issues. Gun control is a classic example."

Turning to the so-called “Tennessee Three” (the state reps who protested in the well of the House which prompted an expulsion vote against the two Black lawmakers), well over half of Chattanooga Power Poll members said they thought the punishment was too harsh but a lesser punishment was warranted.

We asked the same question (“Which of the following best matches your thoughts on the Republican vote to expel the two lawmakers?”) in Tennessee’s other Power Poll Markets, and the responses were parallel:

› 57% in Chattanooga said it was too harsh but some punishment was warranted; 57% in Nashville; 62% in Knoxville and 51% in Memphis.

More Chattanooga respondents agreed the lawmakers should have been expelled — 13% — than those in Nashville (7%), Knoxville (8%), and Memphis (8%).

More than a quarter — 27% — of local respondents said there should have been no punishment at all, which was less than the 36% in Nashville, 29% in Knoxville and 38% in Memphis.

The Covenant School mass shooting, vocal and visible protests and the House expulsion votes appeared to create a perfect storm of pressure on Republicans, or so gun reform supporters thought.

In answer to the question: "How far do you think the Tennessee Three’s actions moved the political needle toward gun law reform?" 60% of Chattanooga Power Poll members indicated "very little" or "not at all." That was in line with Knoxville respondents (57%) and Memphis respondents (56%). Just 46% of Nashville respondents thought that way.

Looking at the flip side, more than half of Nashville Power Poll members — 53% — thought the needle had moved "significantly' or "somewhat." That compares to just 37% in Chattanooga, 42% in Knoxville and Memphis, respectively.

Local attorney Lynzi Archibald, Miller & Martin, wrote she is not convinced the "Tennessee Three" had an effect on advancing gun safety discussions.

However, "there is still a very different, but very important effect,' she wrote. "I believe that headlines like this only rally the extremes: they enrage those supporting gun reform, and they enrage those opposing it, only driving both sides to be more decisive and uncooperative, but changing no one’s mind.

"My personal political beliefs aside, like most political acts/discourse today, unfortunately, the main effect is further division, not progress or meaningful discussion."

Email Chris Vass, public editor of the Times Free Press, at cvass@timesfreepress.com or cvass@powerpoll.com.

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About Power Poll: Power Poll asks questions of the most powerful, influential people in U.S. cities. It is not a scientific survey. But because the people responding to the surveys comprise the leadership structure of their cities, the results afford a fascinating glimpse into the thoughts, opinions, and beliefs of those in a position to make change. Power Poll is distinctly nonpartisan.

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