June 23, 2023 10:00am

Power Poll: A Special Session Primer

It will be a rough ride passing gun control measures in the Tennessee General Assembly

Photo of Bruce Dobie
Nashville, TN Correspondent

A special legislative session on guns is not likely to result in an “order of protection” law similar to what Republican Gov. Bill Lee proposed last April, according to the latest Power Poll. Such a law, which the governor introduced in the wake of the Covenant School shootings, would allow law enforcement to take firearms from people who pose a threat to themselves or others. The measure had significant opposition before and would still have considerable opposition in a special session, chiefly among members of Lee’s own party. Nearly 60% of Power Pollers say the measure would likely not pass.

Power Poll members also appear divided on whether a special session will even take place. Nearly half say it “probably” or “definitely” will be held. But amid calls from a number of conservative legislators not to hold it, 30% describe its likelihood as being in the realm of only “maybe” happening while another 21% say it “probably” or “definitely” will not happen.

There were some priceless nuggets in this Power Poll. First, 49% of respondents say they own a gun; the other 51% do not. Pretty evenly split. Second, members overwhelmingly favor measures that would require people to lock up their firearms; they also overwhelmingly favor outlawing high-capacity magazines that allow people to fire their weapons repeatedly without having to reload.

Finally, in regards to our recurring question about who will likely make a runoff after the Aug. 3 mayor’s race, there has been a re-ordering. In our April and May surveys, Nashville Power Pollers projected a runoff between economic development and affordable housing executive Matt Wiltshire and state Sen. Jeff Yarbro. This month, respondents instead predicted a runoff between Wiltshire and Metro Councilman Freddie O’Connell.

Here are the specific questions and answers to this month’s Power Poll, which had a record-breaking number of participants.

CONTEXT 1: Gun Control & Special Session

When the Legislature was last in town, Gov. Lee was throwing a fourth-quarter hail Mary to get a bill passed that would have allowed local law enforcement, after a hearing before a judge, to seize guns for up to six months from people deemed a risk to themselves or others. Lee’s proposal looked like what is known as a “red-flag law,” which approximately 20 states have. He called it an “order of protection” law. (I must point out that the governor says his proposal is not a" red-flag law,” because he well knows that describing it as such would only make the bill’s prospects even more sketchy. So-called “red-flag laws” are considered “gun control laws.” Look for more of these syntactical skirmishes in the future.)

As soon as Lee presented his order of protection proposal to the Legislature, conservative House Republicans set about blasting the measure. On the flip side, Lt. Gov. Randy McNally, the top official in the state Senate who was otherwise spending much of his time defending his social media interactions with an assertively gay and often nearly naked Instagram poster, said he rather liked it. If you’re a gun control advocate in Tennessee, you take what’s available.

To describe the conclusion of this year’s legislative session as chaotic is to do offense to chaos. The Covenant shootings were fresh on everyone’s minds. A never-ending stream of gun control advocates snaked daily around the state Capitol. The galleries were packed with amped-up moms and kids new to the whole game. And then two Black members of the House, both possessed of photographic memories of the Bible which seemed to temporarily stun the heck out of the white guys in charge, started yelling into a bullhorn and halting House proceedings as a way of calling attention to gun control; they were then expelled from office. National media soon settled into every hotel downtown and went with the story that the South had not budged much since 1965 and that our Legislature was another leading indicator of the decline of the liberal Western order. Lee’s bill was never voted on, much less rationally considered.

Lawmakers were no sooner waving goodbye to Jimmy Kelly’s than the governor was telling reporters about a plan for a special session on guns, to be held Aug. 21. To this day, little is known about it. Truth is, plenty of folks are playing a whisper game as to whether a special session will even be held. That’s because of the enormous opposition to any kind of gun control in the Legislature. Why even bother. Lee has not said what he will propose. And he still hasn’t taken a last formal step to set a special session in stone. Power Poll members do feel like the session will take place, but plenty of respondents have doubts.

In terms of the politics that face the governor here, his challenge will be to hold a special session about gun control in which the words “gun control” will never be mentioned. He will need instead to morph the discussion into being about “law enforcement,” “mental health,” “Second Amendment rights,” “public safety,” and other acceptable red meat substitutes. One wonders whether he can get away with it. It’ll be a communications challenge even if Lee judiciously deploys his wife, who was a close friend of one of the Covenant victims.

A sidenote worth mentioning involves the Covenant School shootings and the police investigation into it. Attention is being paid to the writings of the killer that are in the possession of the Metro Police Department. Some legislators say they want all evidence released before they’ll consider changing gun laws. They want to read the killer’s notes. Numerous Covenant parents are opposed to that. As for our police department, they advise that as part of an ongoing investigation the notes cannot be released.

Meanwhile, 49% of our Power Poll members say they own a gun. At the same time, big majorities of Nashville Power Pollers favor two kinds of gun control measures. They want a law requiring gun owners to lock up their guns wherever they are kept. And they want to outlaw magazines that allow people to fire off as many as 10, and sometimes more, bullets without having to reload. In mass shootings, expanded magazines give an assailant an advantage and potentially increase the number of victims. Power Poll members say get rid of them.

CONTEXT 2: The Mayor’s Race

It would appear that with so many candidates in the race there will almost certainly be a runoff after the Aug. 3 election. Power Poll has been surveying the race monthly for a while. The question we ask is a predictive one. That is, we ask Power Pollers whom they predict will finish first and second, as opposed to whom they are voting for.

The race remains fluid but there is some separation. The results this month would indicate that four candidates are in a top tier. They are Wiltshire, O’Connell, Yarbro, and state Sen. Heidi Campbell. Then in a second tier come Alice Rolli and Jim Gingrich. Then down below is everyone else.

I find it significant that O’Connell, who began the race with a lefty base of progressives who were considering cheaper accommodations in Chattanooga, is now traipsing into the warm embrace of Power Pollers. When I talk to people who are moving into the Freddie column, I always ask them why, and unerringly I get the same response back: “He knows more about Metro than any of the other candidates.” That is strong.

Meanwhile, Wiltshire has now placed first in every one of our Power Polls. That’s unreal strong.

(If you're a member and you want to hear more about the mayor’s race, please come to our event featuring four of the city’s top political reporters who are covering the election. It’s June 29, 7:30-9:00 am, Elliston Place Soda Shop.)

What follows are the total first and second place votes each of the candidates got:

Matt Wiltshire: 632

Freddie O’Connell: 374

Jeff Yarbro: 316

Heidi Campbell: 161

Don’t know: 92

Jim Gingrich: 68

Alice Rolli: 62

Sharon Hurt: 21

Vivian Wilhoite: 10

Fran Bush: 1

As well, what follows are total amounts spent on advertising by the three candidates who have gone up on TV, cable and/or radio from April 19-June 28:

Gingrich: $992,169

Wiltshire: $625,564

Rolli: $30,880

Power Poll Members: Do you have a friend or colleague who should be on Power Poll? Please invite them to join!

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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