Strange alliances emerge in Tennessee as the GOP governor pushes for 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 unfamiliar allies to line up behind the Republican leader.

Democrats and gun control groups have lauded Lee’s move — which came weeks after a shooting at The Covenant School in Nashville killed six people, including three 9-year-old children.

On the other hand, Republicans in the gun-friendly state have signaled they’re unwilling to go along with Lee, who, following the shooting, pleaded with his conservative Legislature to take action.

The unfolding dynamic has put on display how gun control — which remains for most Republicans an untouchable policy item, even in the face of repeated mass shootings — has emerged as a tension point in the party even in overwhelmingly conservative states.

“It really is starting to feel like we’re on the same team,” Raumesh Akbari, the Democratic minority leader of the Tennessee state Senate, said in an interview.

“It has been fascinating to see him break from his caucus, from his party, given that they have not been willing to embrace the possibility of gun safety legislation, especially after what happened at Covenant,” she said.

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

While the dispatch wasn’t unexpected, it nevertheless appeared to send shockwaves through the Tennessee political arena and quickly upended entrenched political loyalties in the state.

Gun rights groups bashed the governor as “lousy Lee” and threatened to do whatever they could to imperil his political future, even though Lee is term limited.

Not too long ago, Lee had earned plaudits from such groups, which had praised his efforts in recent legislative sessions to enact constitutional carry laws and other gun protections.

Meanwhile, in interviews with NBC News, gun control and safety advocacy groups heaped praise upon the conservative Republican.

“What Gov. Lee is doing here is rather commendable. It’s an act of political courage, even if the solution he put on the table isn’t a perfect one,” said Sean Holihan, the state legislative director at Giffords, a national nonprofit organization that promotes gun safety. He said it was “absolutely” to Lee’s credit that he was trying to lead on 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 question” that Lee was trying to take action “to prevent mass shootings.”

In his announcement, Lee said he’d use the eight weeks leading up to the special session to “meet with legislators, stakeholders and Tennesseans throughout the summer to discuss practical solutions ahead of the special session.”

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

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

In an email to NBC News, a Lee spokesperson reiterated that the governor was continuing to give priority to an “improved Order of Protection law” as “a possible solution.”

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 pose a danger to themselves or others.

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

The Tennessee House Republican Caucus, for example, has repeatedly said that “any red flag law is a nonstarter.” Jennifer Easton, a spokesperson for the caucus, said that members were continuing to demand the release of the Covenant shooter’s “manifesto” before working with Lee on any proposals.

A spokesperson for Tennessee House Speaker Cameron Sexton declined to answer questions about what subjects state Republicans would be willing to work with Lee on. Spokespersons for Tennessee House Majority Leader William Lamberth and the Tennessee Senate Republican Caucus didn’t respond to questions from NBC News.

Gun rights groups, however, laid into Lee.

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

“The way he’s talking, it sure does sound like” the governor appeared to be closer on gun policy to Democrats than to his own caucus, Stein said.

Lee hasn’t given any indication he’d work primarily with Democrats in the Legislature to enact gun laws.

And even if he did, the GOP supermajorities in both chambers are so large — years of partisan redistricting in the state have resulted in a 75-24 and a 27-6 Republican advantage in the state House and Senate, respectively — he would not be able to get anything passed without substantial Republican support.

Woking in his favor, though, is public polling in the state showing overwhelming support for stronger 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-described MAGA Republicans” said they backed the executive order. Separately, 75% of all respondents said they supported a red flag gun law.

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

Republican legislators took the exceptionally rare step of voting to expel two of those three lawmakers — throwing out the two Black Democrats but sparing a third one, who is a white woman — leading to accusations of racism.

Both expelled lawmakers, Justin Jones and Justin J. Pearson, were quickly reinstated to their seats, leaving Republicans with nothing to show aside from the bad publicity surrounding their views on guns and their heavy-handed approach toward their Black colleagues.

That sequence put into greater focus the national GOP’s struggles over how to balance policies and issues that are popular among the conservative base — such as opposition to new gun restrictions — but deeply unappealing to swing voters who will play a vital role in next year’s elections.

But unlike on the national level, some Democrats in Tennessee are trying to throw their Republican counterparts a bone, urging them to advance policy as a way to help them move on from 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,” Akbari, the Democratic minority state senate leader, said.

It’s not totally unheard of for a conservative Republican governor in a red state to act on gun control. In Florida in 2018, for example, then-Gov. 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 for firearm purchases to 21, expanding a waiting period for gun purchases and a red flag law.

Gun rights groups, sensing opportunity, said they’d settle for far less in the upcoming Tennessee special session. That would include accepting incremental measures, such as a voluntary do-not-sell list and a beefed up safe storage law.

Akbari said it was likely that, if anything gets done at all, “it’s probably not going to be what my caucus would prefer.” But she remains hopeful.

“The governor’s really rising to meet the moment of what people are asking for,” she said.

Feinblatt, of Everytown for Gun Safety, warned, however, that the growing hope and goodwill between groups like his and Lee would evaporate if he gets nothing through.

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

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