This just in: A glimmer of hope has been sighted in Tennessee amid the darkness that began with the recent deadly school shooting in Nashville.
Bill Lee, the Republican governor, announced Tuesday that not only will he sign an executive order toughening Tennessee’s background checks for gun purchases, but he is also calling for the state legislature to pass a red flag law.
Yes, a red flag law — the supposed gun-grabbing extreme risk protection order that allows a judge to temporarily remove guns from those deemed an imminent danger to themselves or others — that would have been, and still might be, unthinkable in a bright red state like Tennessee with GOP supermajorities in both houses of the legislature.
Why the sudden glimmer?
There are a few possibilities besides the obvious one — that the toughened background checks and red flag law might just save lives. As you may have noticed, the Colorado legislature is approving a rash of gun-safety laws this session, including one that would broaden the state’s current red flag law so it might be used even in El Paso County before another mass shooting occurs there.
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One, if there is a glimmer, it must have begun with students and others in Nashville who marched to the Capitol day after day and with the decision to expel two Black Democratic state legislators who used a bullhorn to indecorously support the demonstrators from the Tennessee House floor. The expulsion immediately became a national story and has been roundly condemned as both legislative overreach and very possibly racist.
One of the legislators, Rep. Justin Jones, has already been reappointed on an interim basis by the Nashville city council and has announced that every bill he proposes until the end of the session will be a gun-safety bill. The other expelled legislator, Rep. Justin Pearson, is expected to be reinstated Wednesday.
Since their expulsion, they don’t need bullhorns any more. They’ve got microphones with national reach waiting for them on most news networks not called Fox.
So, yes, it’s just possible — though I’m not sure how likely — that the strong reaction from within Tennessee and nationally might spur some genuine action beyond thoughts and prayers.
Two, you’d have to think the mass shooting in nearby Kentucky could have only reinforced the issue. There’s a well-known headline from the Onion that runs after most mass shootings, which reads simply: “‘No Way To Prevent This,’ Says Only Nation Where This Regularly Happens.”
That’s certainly what you have heard in Kentucky, where less than a month before the Louisville shooting, in which five were killed by an AR-15-style assault weapon, the legislature passed a bill making Kentucky one of those so-called Second Amendment sanctuary states. The law, which Democratic governor Andy Beshear decided to neither sign nor veto, doesn’t allow law “enforcement” officers to do any enforcing of federal gun laws.
But now Tennessee Gov. Lee is heard to say, “A new, strong order of protection law will provide the broader population cover, safety, from those who are a danger to themselves or the population.”
“This is our moment to lead and to give the people of Tennessee what they deserve,” Lee added.
He really did. He also said that one of the people killed in the Nashville school shooting was among his wife’s closest friends. Coincidentally, but maybe not all that surprisingly, the governor of Kentucky said one of his closest friends was killed in the Louisville mass shooting.
A poll released by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that one in five Americans say a family member has been killed by a gun, including death by suicide, and nearly as many (17%) say they have personally witnessed someone being shot.
Three, there was a growing consensus that something should be done by someone. In a much-discussed op-ed in the Tennessean, former Tennessee governors Bill Haslam and Phil Bredesen, one a Republican and one a Democrat, wrote in support of a red flag law and of expanding legal responsibility for those who fail to properly secure guns. The governors said “small steps” were needed to begin bipartisan gun reform.
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Four, Democrats are hoping — is it more than a glimmer? — that the school shootings and other mass shootings could change the dynamic that has held for so many years, in which gun-rights groups have far more power in Congress and in statehouses than gun-safety groups do.
We’ve seen the change in the abortion debate since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, after which many Republican-led state legislatures reacted by passing extremely restrictive abortion laws. Polls have shown growing support for abortion rights. And in fact, the conservative court’s decision on Roe may have helped Democrats hold the Senate and hold down losses in the House in the 2022 midterms. Abortion rights are now a centerpiece of Democratic policy.
Yes, we saw the much-ridiculed ruling by the federal district judge in Texas, Matthew Kacsmaryk, who decided he knew more than scientists about the safety of mifepristone and invalidated the Food and Drug Administration’s 23-year approval of the drug. Kacsmaryk made his ruling despite the fact the abortion drug has been found to be less dangerous than, well, Tylenol.
If the drug is not dangerous, the ruling could be. Abortion pills are used in more than 50% of abortions. And Kacsmaryk encouraged even more ridicule by citing the 19th-century anti-vice Comstock Act, which, he said, wouldn’t allow abortion drugs to be sent in the mail.
The good news is that hardly anyone who follows the Supreme Court closely thinks that even this right-wing court would uphold the ruling, which uses anti-abortion-activist language like “unborn human” when discussing an aborted fetus. A federal district court judge in Washington responded immediately by ruling that the drug would still be available and legal in states, including Colorado, that opposed the lawsuit in Texas.
The opposing rulings will almost certainly eventually require the Supreme Court to act. The New York Times notes that in a related case — having to do with FDA rules on the distribution of abortion pills — Justice Samuel Alito, joined by Clarence Thomas, couldn’t believe “a district court judge in Maryland took it upon himself to overrule the FDA on a question of drug safety.”
And what of guns?
Well, polls do show extremely strong support for more restrictive laws. According to a Gallup poll, 63% of Americans show dissatisfaction with the country’s present gun laws, not that the number will have any impact on the Republican-controlled U.S. House.
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But there is so much bad news around gun violence just now. According to the Gun Violence Archive, there have been 145 mass shootings — in which four or more people are killed or injured — so far this year. Meanwhile, the Pew Research Center reports that gun deaths of children and teens grew by a shocking 50% — shocking despite everything we know — between 2019 and 2021.
Like many of you, I all but gave up on national legislation after Congress refused to act in response to the Sandy Hook massacre that took the lives of 20 first-graders and six teachers.
But if Tennessee can actually do something — and we’ll see in the coming weeks if they do — maybe a glimmer could eventually turn into a gleam and maybe, though you shouldn’t get your hopes up, a gleam into something slightly brighter.
Because, however dark it gets out there, giving up isn’t really an option, is it?
Mike Littwin has been a columnist for too many years to count. He has covered Dr. J, four presidential inaugurations, six national conventions and countless brain-numbing speeches in the New Hampshire and Iowa snow.
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