Tennessee Governor Bill Lee’s decision last week Financial support A special session of the Legislature to deal with gun reform has prompted a number of unknown allies to rally behind the Republican leader.
Democrats and gun control groups have praised Lee’s move – which came just weeks after a shooting at Nashville’s Covenant School that killed six people, including three 9-year-old children.
On the other hand, Republicans in the gun-friendly state have signaled they are unwilling to follow Lee’s imploring his conservative legislature to take action after the shooting.
The unfolding momentum has shown how gun control — which remains an untouchable political point for most Republicans even in the face of repeated mass shootings — has become a point of tension in the party, even in mostly conservative states.
“It’s really starting to feel like we’re on the same team,” Raumesh Akbari, the Democratic minority leader in the Tennessee state Senate, said in an interview.
“It was fascinating to see him break away from his caucus and his party’s unwillingness to embrace the possibility of gun protection legislation, especially after what happened at Covenant,” she said.
Akbari was referring to Lee’s recent announcement that the legislature, which has a Republican supermajority, will convene a special session in Nashville in August to consider gun safety measures.
While the message was not unexpected, it nonetheless appeared to send shockwaves through the Tennessee political arena, quickly upending entrenched political allegiances in the state.
Gun rights groups criticized the governor as “lousy Lee” and threatened to do anything to jeopardize his political future, even though Lee’s tenure is limited.
Not so long ago, Lee had earned praise by such groups that have lauded his efforts in recent legislatures to enact constitutional carry laws and other gun protection measures.
Meanwhile, gun control and safety advocacy groups heaped praise on the conservative Republican in interviews with NBC News.
“What Governor Lee is doing here is quite commendable. It’s an act of political courage, even if the solution he’s put on the table isn’t perfect,” said Sean Holihan, the state legislative director at Giffords, a statewide nonprofit dedicated to gun safety . He said it was “absolutely” Lee’s credit for attempting to take the lead with guns.
John Feinblatt, president of Everytown for Gun Safety, said Lee’s efforts represented “significant progress” for Republicans, adding there was “no doubt” Lee wanted to take action “to prevent mass shootings.”
In his announcement, Lee said he would use the eight weeks leading up to the special session to “meet with lawmakers, stakeholders and Tennessee residents throughout the summer to discuss practical solutions ahead of the special session.”
Weeks earlier, in the days after the Covenant School mass shooting, was Lee, who was friends with his wife with something of the shooting victims signed an executive order to strengthen background checks. He also called on Republican lawmakers to pass a version of a “red flag” law, saying legislation was needed to address deficiencies in the state’s existing gun laws.
“We can’t stop the evil, but we can do something,” Lee said in the announcement. This initial push prompted House Republicans to abruptly adjourn their session.
In an email to NBC News, a Lee spokesman reiterated that the governor continues to prioritize an “enhanced protections act” as a “possible solution.”
The Red Flag laws, similar in scope to the Order of Protection laws, allow authorities to temporarily confiscate firearms from individuals who are determined to pose a danger to themselves or others.
Lee’s latest call, however, has so far met with either silence or opposition from Tennessee Republicans and gun rights groups.
The Republican caucus of the Tennessee House of Representatives, for example has said repeatedly that “any red flag law is a non-starter.” Jennifer Easton, a spokeswoman for the caucus, said members would continue to do so demand the release of the Covenant Marksman’s “manifesto” before working with Lee on any proposals.
A spokesman for Tennessee House Speaker Cameron Sexton declined to answer questions on the issues on which state Republicans would be willing to work with Lee. Speakers for Tennessee House Majority Leader William Lamberth and the Tennessee Senate Republican caucus did not respond to questions from NBC News.
However, gun rights groups put forward Lee.
“I don’t even know if it’s so much because he’s changing his mind or because he’s showing his true colors,” said Jordan Stein, spokesman for Gun Owners of America.
“In fact, the way he’s talking, it sounds like the governor is closer to the Democrats than his own faction on gun policy,” Stein said.
Lee has given no indication that he would primarily work with Democrats in Parliament to pass gun laws.
And even if he did, the Republican majority in both houses would be so large — years of partisan redistribution in the state has resulted in Republican leads of 75-24 and 27-6 in the House and Senate, respectively — he wouldn’t be able to push through anything without significant Republican support.
However, in his favor, public polls in the state overwhelmingly support stricter gun control laws. A survey by Vanderbilt University this month found that 82% of registered voters in the state said they supported Lee’s executive order. Notably, the poll found that 72% of “self-proclaimed MAGA Republicans” said they supported the executive order. Regardless, 75% of all respondents said they support a red flag gun law.
The public outcry in Tennessee following the Covenant School shooting was loud and chaotic — and has exposed the state’s Republican dysfunction internationally. Days after the massacre, protests erupted across the state demanding gun control, including in the House of Representatives chamber, attended by three Democratic lawmakers.
Republican lawmakers have taken the exceptionally rare step of voting to expel two of those three lawmakers – kicking out the two black Democrats but sparing a third, a white woman – which has prompted accusations of racism.
Both expelled Reps. Justin Jones and Justin J. Pearson were quickly restored to their seats, leaving Republicans with nothing to show for, aside from the bad publicity their views on guns circulated and their hardline crackdown on their black peers.
That sequence brought more focus to Republican struggles nationally how to balance policies and issues that are popular with the conservative grassroots — such as opposition to new gun restrictions — but for swing voters who care about the election will play a crucial role in the next year are deeply unattractive.
But unlike at the national level, some Democrats in Tennessee are trying to thwart their Republican counterparts and urge them to move forward with policies to help them emerge from the debacle.
“I have communicated to my colleagues that the way to fix the problem and get them fixed again is to pass something,” said Akbari, the Senate leader of the minority democratic state.
It’s not entirely uncommon for a conservative Republican governor to take gun control action in a red state. In Florida, for example, in 2018, then governor. Rick Scott signed into law a package of gun laws weeks after the horrific mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, including measures to raise the legal age to purchase firearms to 21, an increase in the waiting period for gun purchases and a law about red flags.
Gun rights groups, seeing an opportunity, said they would settle for far less in the upcoming special session in Tennessee. This includes the adoption of step-by-step measures such as a voluntary ban list and a strengthened safe storage law.
Akbari said it was likely that if anything were done, “it probably won’t be what my faction would prefer”. However, she remains hopeful.
“The governor is really willing to accommodate people’s demands,” she said.
However, Feinblatt of Everytown for Gun Safety warned that if he didn’t get through, the growing hope and goodwill between groups like his and Lee would disappear.
“You don’t get out of a tight spot just by calling for it,” he said.