August 18, 2023 12:00pm

Meaningful legislation to reduce gun violence? No way

Just days before lawmakers return to the state Capitol for a special session on public safety and mental health, Chattanooga Power Poll members overwhelmingly said they do not expect any meaningful legislation to come out of it.

Photo of Chris Vass
Chattanooga, TN Correspondent

Just days before lawmakers return to the state Capitol for a special session on public safety and mental health, Power Poll Chattanooga members overwhelmingly said they do not expect any meaningful legislation to come out of it.

Just over 80% of respondents to the August poll this week answered "no" to the question: "Will the GOP-majority General Assembly pass any legislation that adequately addresses gun violence?" Another 12% percent said they didn't know while 8% said "yes." God bless the optimists.

Legislators find themselves in the tightest of spaces, caught between Second Amendment advocates and substantial public sentiment supporting some gun safety reforms, including red flag laws, stronger background checks and safe storage laws. Earlier this year, a Vanderbilt University poll showed that gun regulation was among the top three concerns of respondents. And mayors from the state's four major cities wrote Gov. Bill Lee, urging him to adopt gun reforms including restrictions on sales and carrying.

In advance of the special session, the public was asked to share their opinions during a public comment period. Since May, about 20,000 people wrote to the governor.

Still, lawmakers are balking at substantial reforms, deflecting to the need for improvements to mental health services instead. Those improvements certainly are needed (more on that below).

Opponents to gun safety reform or regulation argue the Second Amendment protects gun owners' rights and cannot be restricted. However, Power Poll members are not convinced.

In answer to the question, "Do you think the Second Amendment prohibits state legislators from taking any actions to reduce the supply or availability of firearms in Tennessee?", almost three-fourths — 72% — said "no." Another 17% said "yes" while 11 percent didn't know.

Coming on the heels of the special session is another significant issue for Chattanooga and Hamilton County: the proposed relocation of Moccasin Bend Mental Health Institute from the Moccasin Bend peninsula, which would . Since opening in 1961, the facility has been targeted for closure several times. But Gov. Lee allocated about $270 million, first for a renovation then for a replacement at another site, if one was found to be acceptable. The state has said it evaluated 40 alternatives. Ultimately, demolishing the existing hospital and moving it to a smaller footprint on the peninsula was determined to be the best option, and the local legislative delegation sent a letter to the state affirming that plan.

Former U.S. Rep. Zach Wamp, who spearheaded the federal legislation to create the archaeological district on the bend site in 2003, has called the latest option "a compromise."

Supporters of the Moccasin Bend National Archaeological District, which currently includes 956 acres, are disappointed; they had hoped to include all of the mental health institute's 90 acres in the national park.

Power Poll members were divided on the issue. Asked, "Do you think this [alternative] option, as opposed to moving the facility off the peninsula, is satisfactory?", 31% said "no" while 28% said "yes." However, a substantial number – 41% – said they didn't know (22%) or had no opinion (19%).

Wamp, now the president/owner of Zach Wamp Consulting, wrote that "the Moccasin Bend National Archaeological District is without a peer in the United States.

"Within yards of the hospital buildings are artifacts, a village and heritage literally 11,000 years old. This asset has yet to be fully realized because the federal government is so dysfunctional, but it’s an asset we shouldn’t squander out of convenience."

Hamilton County Juvenile Court Judge Gary Behler brought up a salient point, especially in light of what will be happening in Nashville next week and the growing emphasis and concern about the adequacy (or not) of mental health services here and across the state.

"To me, the primary issue regarding the discussions about the Moccasin Bend Mental Health facility is not the location but the fact that they are considering 'downsizing' it," he wrote.

"At a time when two sheriffs (Jim Hammond and Austin Garrett) have both said that almost 35% of our local jail population has mental health issues (consistent with national statistics), there are increasing mental health issues within the homeless population and growing concern over mental well-being in society in general, why would we even consider a reduction in services? If anything, mental health services should be expanded significantly in our community as a preventative measure to alleviate pressure on so many other interrelated social services."

The State Building Commission is set to take up the Moccasin Bend location issue at its meeting scheduled for Sept. 14 in Nashville.

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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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