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Strange alliances in Tennessee as GOP governor pushes gun reform

Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee’s decision last week to call a special legislative session to tackle gun reform has prompted a number of unknown allies to line up behind the Republican leader.

Democrats and gun control groups hailed Lee’s decision – which came weeks after a shooting at the Covenant School in Nashville killed six people, including three 9-year-olds.

On the other hand, Republicans in the gun-friendly state have signaled they don’t want to follow Lee, who after the shooting pleaded with his conservative legislature to take action.

The unfolding dynamic has shown how gun control — which remains an untouchable political item for most Republicans, even in the face of repeated mass shootings — has become a point of tension within the party, even in states extremely conservative.

“We’re really starting to feel like we’re on the same team,” Tennessee State Senate Democratic Minority Leader Raumesh Akbari said in an interview.

“It was fascinating to watch him break with his caucus, with his party, given that they were unwilling to accept the possibility of gun safety legislation, especially after what happened. moved to Covenant,” she said.

Akbari was referring to Lee’s recent announcement to recall the Legislature, which has a GOP supermajority, to Nashville for a special session in August to tackle gun safety measures.

While the dispatch was not unexpected, it nevertheless seemed to send shockwaves through the Tennessee political arena and quickly upset entrenched political loyalties in the state.

Gun advocacy groups have called the governor an “ugly lee” and threatened to do anything they can to jeopardize his political future, even if Lee is given a time limit.

Not so long ago, Lee had earned plaudits from those groups, who hailed his efforts in recent legislative sessions to enact constitutional carry laws and other gun protections.

Meanwhile, in interviews with NBC News, gun and safety advocacy groups have praised the conservative Republican.

“What Governor Lee is doing here is quite commendable. It is an act of political courage, even if the solution he has offered is not perfect,” said Sean Holihan, state legislative director at Giffords, a national nonprofit that promotes safety. firearms. He said it was “absolutely” to Lee’s credit that he was trying to direct the guns.

John Feinblatt, president of Everytown for Gun Safety, said Lee’s efforts marked a “significant step forward” for Republicans, adding that there was “no doubt ‘Lee was trying 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 residents of Tennessee throughout the summer to discuss practical solutions ahead of the special session.” .

Weeks earlier, in the days following the mass shooting inside the Covenant School, Lee, who along with his wife had been friends with some of the shooting victims, had signed an executive order to strengthen background checks. He also called on Republican lawmakers to pass some version of a red flag law, saying legislation was needed to address shortcomings in the state’s existing gun laws.

“We can’t stop the evil, but we can do something,” Lee said during the announcement. That initial push prompted Republicans in the Legislature to abruptly schedule an adjournment of their session.

In an email to NBC News, a spokesperson for Lee reiterated that the governor continues to prioritize “enhanced protective order law” as “a possible solution.”

Red flag laws, which are similar in scope to protection order laws, allow authorities to temporarily seize firearms from people who pose a danger to themselves or others.

Lee’s latest appeal, however, has so far been met with silence or rejection by Tennessee Republicans and gun advocacy groups.

The Tennessee House Republican Caucus, for example, said many times that “any red flag law is a no-start.” Jennifer Easton, spokeswoman for the caucus, said members continue to demand the release of the Covenant shooter’s “manifesto” before working with Lee on any proposals.

A spokesman for Tennessee House Speaker Cameron Sexton declined to answer questions about what topics Republicans in the state would be willing to work with Lee on. Spokespersons for Tennessee House Majority Leader William Lamberth and the Tennessee Senate Republican Caucus did not respond to questions from NBC News.

Gun advocacy groups, however, attacked Lee.

“I don’t even know if it’s so much that he’s changing his mind or if he’s showing his true colors more” on guns, Gun Owners of America spokesman Jordan Stein said.

“The way he talks, it sounds like ‘the governor seemed to be closer to the Democrats’ gun policy than his own caucus,’ Stein said.

Lee gave no indication that he would primarily work with Democrats in the Legislature to enact gun laws.

And even if he did, the GOP supermajorities in both houses are so important — years of partisan redistricting in the state have resulted in a 75-24 and 27-6 Republican advantage in the state House. and in the Senate, respectively — he wouldn’t be able to push anything through without substantial Republican support.

Woking in his favour, however, is a public poll in the state showing overwhelming support for tougher gun control laws. A Vanderbilt University survey 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. Separately, 75% of all respondents said they support a red flag gun law.

The public outcry in Tennessee over the shooting of The Covenant School has been loud and chaotic — and has put Republican dysfunction in the state on the international stage. Days after the massacre, protests demanding gun control erupted across the state, including on the floor of the State House bedroom, where three Democratic lawmakers took part.

Republican lawmakers made the exceptionally rare decision to vote to expel two of those three lawmakers — dismissing the two black Democrats but sparing a third, who is a white woman — leading to accusations of racism.

The two expelled lawmakers, Justin Jones and Justin J. Pearson, were quickly reinstated to their seats, leaving Republicans with nothing to show for but the bad publicity surrounding their gun views and heavy-handed approach to their black colleagues.

This footage focused more on the national GOP’s struggles over how to balance policies and issues that are popular among the conservative base — like opposition to new gun restrictions — but deeply unappealing. for swing voters who will play a vital role in next year’s election.

But unlike nationally, some Democrats in Tennessee are trying to throw a bone at their Republican counterparts, urging them to push the policy forward as a way to help them out of the debacle.

“I’ve shared with my colleagues that the way to fix this and for them to right their ship is to pass something,” said Akbari, the Democratic Minority Senate Leader.

It’s not entirely unheard of for a conservative Republican governor in a red state to act on gun control. In Florida in 2018, for example, then governor. Rick Scott, weeks after the horrific mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, signed a package of gun laws, including measures raising the legal age to purchase guns to age 21, the extension of a waiting period for gun purchases and a red flag law.

Gun rights groups, sensing the opportunity, said they would settle for much less at the next Tennessee special session. This would include agreeing to progressive measures, such as a voluntary list of products prohibited from sale and a strengthened law on safe storage.

Akbari said it was likely that, if anything was done, “it probably wouldn’t be what my caucus would prefer.” But she remains hopeful.

“The governor really stands up to respond in time to what people are asking,” she said.

Feinblatt, of Everytown for Gun Safety, however, warned that the growing hope and goodwill between groups like his and Lee would evaporate if he did not succeed.

“You don’t get off the hook just by calling her,” he said.


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