August 18, 2023 10:00am

Special Session on Public Safety

A majority of respondents to this month’s survey would have preferred to see lawmakers consider more substantial firearms restrictions.

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Knoxville, TN Correspondent
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Knoxville Power Poll members overwhelmingly support the upcoming special session of the Tennessee General Assembly on public safety, but a large majority would prefer seeing more firearms restrictions on the agenda.

Gov. Bill Lee officially called for the special session in a proclamation issued on Aug. 8, but had made his intentions known during the aftermath of the Covenant School shooting in Nashville on March 27 that left three students, three educators dead. Police killed the shooter.

The tragedy led to protests at the Capitol as the regular session came to a close. GOP leaders charged three Democratic lawmakers — Reps. Justin Jones of Nashville, Justin Pearson of Memphis and Gloria Johnson of Knoxville — with violating House rules during the protest. Jones and Pearson were expelled (they have since been re-elected in special elections) and Johnson narrowly escaped expulsion.

Lee, whose wife was friends with one of the adult women killed in the Covenant shooting, announced his intention to call a special session after the Legislature failed to act on public safety legislation before adjourning. Legislation considered during special sessions is restricted to topics specified in the call for its convening.

Lee listed 18 topics in his proclamation, Topics can be grouped into three broad categories — mental health issues related to violence, juvenile and criminal records access, and school safety. Consideration of generally applicable firearms restrictions is conspicuously absent, except for narrowly tailored temporary mental health orders of protection and one item that covers measures that encourage safe firearms storage as long as there are no penalties for unsafe storage.

Power Poll members were asked for their thoughts on the session and what the priorities should be. Eighty-two percent of the respondents agreed with Lee’s decision to call the special session. Only 7 percent disagreed.

Prominent Republican lawmakers, including legislative leaders, initially opposed the very notion of a special session on public safety amid concerns that it could lead to legislation restricting firearms. The expanded agenda — and the near absence of any broadly applicable gun safety legislation beyond firearms storage — should at least bring them to the Capitol. Democrats have argued for the inclusion of gun control measures. The party has conducted a statewide bus tour this week with the advocacy group Our Children Deserve Better to highlight their concerns. The bus tour was set to arrive in Knoxville last night for a rally at West High School.

Eighty-six percent of Power Poll respondents said more substantial firearms restrictions should have been included in the topics under consideration. More than half — 56 percent — would like lawmakers to consider restrictions on firearms sales and another 17 percent would want them to look at more restrictions on where people can legally carry firearms. Thirteen percent would want to see legislators take up possibly enhancing penalties for the use of firearms in the commission of crimes. Only 7 percent said that firearms restrictions shouldn’t be part of the discussions.

As for items that will be up for discussion, Lee has emphasized several, most notably championing temporary mental health orders of protection, which are sometimes referred to as “red flag laws.” These orders would allow judges to temporarily prohibit people with diagnosed mental conditions from possessing firearms. Nineteen states have similar laws. That proposal faces stiff opposition from his fellow members of the GOP. Even Sen. Majority Leader Jack Johnson, who typically sponsors Lee administration bills, has said he won’t support it.

Power Poll respondents were split on what the session’s top priority should be, with 29 percent saying Lee’s temporary mental health orders of protection should rank first and 37 percent favoring legislation on mental health services. Another 18 percent would emphasize school safety plans and policies. Four in 10 respondents said school safety is the topic most likely to produce actual legislation that could pass, however. Much smaller proportions of the respondents anticipate the passage of temporary mental health orders of protection (14 percent) or bills on mental health services (15 percent). Twenty-one percent said it’s more likely legislation would emerge covering other topics.

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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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