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Tennessee GOP governor signs executive order strengthening background checks

Lee signed the order amid heightened tensions after two Democrats, both Black men, were expelled from the General Assembly for protesting on the House floor against gun violence.

Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee, a Republican, signed an executive order Tuesday to strengthen background checks and called on the General Assembly to pass the equivalent of a red flag law.

Lee said at a news conference that the order would ensure that information-sharing “more closely guarantees the safe, lawful purchase of firearms in Tennessee.”

He also said legislation was needed to address shortcomings in existing gun laws.

“Our current law is proven and effective in many circumstances, especially with regards to domestic violence, but this new stronger order of protection law will provide the broader population cover, safety, from those who are in danger to themselves or to the population,” Lee said.

Red flag laws, which are similar in scope to order of protection laws, allow authorities to temporarily seize firearms from people who are found to be dangers to themselves or others. President Joe Biden last year signed landmark bipartisan gun legislation that included grants to states for red flag laws.

Police said the Nashville school shooter was under care for an emotional disorder and hid weapons at their parents’ home.

It was not clear whether the legislature, where Republicans hold a majority, would take up such a bill during this legislative session.

Lt. Gov. Randy McNally, who is also the speaker of the Senate, was supportive of Lee's efforts.

“I support the Second Amendment unequivocally and believe that a law-abiding, armed citizenry is the greatest defense against criminality and tyranny. But I also believe we must take steps to ensure those experiencing mental health crises do not have access to weapons that can be used in mass casualty events,” McNally said in a statement.

“Any such order process must be tightly constructed with sufficient due process and protection against false or fraudulent reporting. I believe it is possible to protect the constitutional rights of law-abiding gun owners while keeping guns out of the hands of people experiencing severe mental health crises.”

Gov. Bill Lee responds to questions during a news conference Tuesday, April 11, 2023, in Nashville, Tenn. Lee held the news conference to talk about gun control legislation and an executive order to require information for background checks on gun purchases to be updated more rapidly.
Gov. Bill Lee responds to questions during a news conference in Nashville, Tenn., on Tuesday.George Walker IV / AP

In a statement, House Speaker Cameron Sexton's office said any proposal dealing with mental health orders of protection "must have a level of due process, protections from fraudulent claims, and a quick judicial hearing for individuals who pose imminent threats."

"The House is willing to work toward bipartisan solutions to protect all children at their schools, in their communities, and inside their homes,” his office added.

Tensions have been heightened in Tennessee after Justin Jones and Justin J. Pearson, both Black Democrats, were expelled from the General Assembly last week over their involvement in a protest on the chamber floor against gun violence. A third Democrat, Rep. Gloria Johnson, who is white, survived her expulsion vote.

The floor protest was in response to a mass shooting at The Covenant School in Nashville in which six people were killed, including three children.

Jones was reinstated Monday after a Nashville city council vote. The Shelby County Commission is expected to hold a similar vote for Pearson on Wednesday.

Asked at the news conference about the expulsions of Jones and Pearson, which thrust the state into the national spotlight, Lee declined to comment directly and instead said legislators were operating in an “emotionally charged environment” after last month’s mass shooting.

“We should be very serious about real solutions and about getting real solutions across the finish line, and I look forward to working with the General Assembly to do just that,” Lee said.

“We should work to set aside our differences and accomplish something that Tennesseans want us to get accomplished,” he added.

Asked whether Lee's actions Tuesday were influenced by Jones' and Pearson's expulsion, Jade Byers, a spokesperson for the governor, told NBC News: "To be very clear, the Governor’s action to protect Tennesseans is a response to the tragic shooting at the Covenant School that took six precious lives, including three children who were just nine years old.”

Lee has been encouraging bipartisan solutions for "nearly two weeks," Byers said in a statement, noting that Lee had previously asked the General Assembly to propose legislation to ensure that people who are threats to themselves or the public do not have access to weapons.

A week after the mass shooting, Lee and legislative leaders proposed measures and funding to place armed school resource officers at the state's public schools.

The executive order Lee signed Tuesday requires entering criminal history information and court mental health information within 72 hours to the Tennessee Instant Check System or supplying that information to the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation. Courts will be required to submit similar information to the background check system.

The order also calls on the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation to examine the current process to buy firearms and issue a report within 60 days. "If there are changes needed, we can make those changes," Lee said.