By John Harris [Executive Director of Tennessee Firearms Association] –
Shortly after the Tennessee Firearms Association sent out its report on the Special Session, we started receiving a lot of inquiries from Tennesseans who wanted to know “who the problem Republicans are”, or “did my Representative and Senator protect our rights” or “are you going to send out a list of which Republicans need to be replaced.”
We probably have had these questions more at this time than in the past. It is clear that Tennesseans are concerned about whether Bill Lee and the Republican Legislature are truly going to defend their rights as protected by the Second Amendment or for that matter their other personal rights and liberties. Real conservatives and those furious over the fact that a Special Session even occurred (and was not immediately adjourned) are seeking answers and that search is not to send “thank you” notes.
However, it is not easy to determine which Legislators do and do not support and defend your Second Amendment rights. That is collectively intentional on their part. Here are a few reasons why:
There are circumstances we do not know unless those on the inside share what they know.
Start with Bill Lee. It is obvious to anyone watching since at least 2018 that neither he nor his administration truly support or defend the rights protected by the Second Amendment. The fact that Governor Lee and numerous of Lee’s administrative agencies, including the Department of Safety and TBI, have a long history of opposing pro-Second Amendment legislation has been a topic addressed by TFA in its materials for years. A recent analysis can be found here. It is no surprise that when the Covenant murders occurred that Governor Lee immediately called for gun control and passing a Red Flag law.
When Governor Lee called for a Special Session, TFA started interviewing Legislators. Almost all of them stated that there was no need for or that they did not support a special session. For example, consider the statements by Senator Jack Johnson as well as similar interviews with other legislators on the TFA website.
The Legislature had the discretion to respond to Governor Lee’s demand for a special session by immediately adjourning. Putting words to action, Rep. Bryan Richey (R) filed House Joint Resolution 7040 to call for a vote to immediately adjourn the special session. That motion was heard in the House on August 21, 2023, but according to the state’s website, only six House members voted to suspend the rules so that there could even be a vote on the motion to adjourn. According to the state’s website, those six were Representatives Capley, Hill, Keisling, Lynn, Richey, and Warner. We have been contacted by Rep. Jody Barrett who says he also requested to be recorded as a “yes” vote but the state’s website does not reflect his vote either way.
Almost all House Republicans voted against adjournment and to move forward with the Special Session. Given its clear gun control focus, despite Bill Lee trying to hide gun control in a “public safety” proclamation, why was there only 6, perhaps 7, Republicans who were even willing to vote on adjourning? Perhaps some of the others thought taking up 100 or more gun control bills was a good idea. Perhaps they were cautioned (or worse) that they should not vote to adjourn. Whatever the reason, the voting record speaks only at the surface as to the question of why not adjourn.
The answer is out there and conservative minds want to know the truth. Depending on the circumstances, those answers may or may not shed light on whether the legislator failed to defend our rights or whether, perhaps, they were “persuaded” that it was better to at least consider the chance to make the most of a bad special session demand by trying to pass pro-Second Amendment legislation. Maybe they felt a need to “do something” perhaps to defend Governor Lee. Certainly some of those who did not vote to support adjournment did file and try to advance pro-Second Amendment bills during the special session. So, what is the truth and, perhaps, what was the better strategy?
The truth is concealed or confusing.
Another issue is that the truth lies somewhere in a fog of complex facts. Many good pro-Second Amendment bills are killed in subcommittees or committees year after year after year. That means that only those Legislators who serve on those committees have a voice or even a vote on whether the bills move forward. Most Legislators do not have a vote until legislation reaches the House or Senate floor and thus there is no “paper trail” of activity on those bills for most Legislators.
A recent example of this at work is when the House Education Administration committee killed Rep. Chris Todd’s HB 7064 on a 9 to 9 vote. Several House Republicans voted to kill that bill and their reasons, to the extent that they were publicly explained, can be seen on the video recording of the committee’s discussion of the bill. But most House members never had a chance to vote on, debate or be heard on that bill. The result is there is no paper trail for those non-participating legislators and the trail that exists for committee members may not be entirely clear.
When bills are killed in committees, the current Senate procedures normally result in a recorded vote of the committee members. However, the House rules allow a method for not only hiding the individual votes (House rules allow for non-specific “voice votes”) but have also allowed, at least in the past, an opportunity for intentional misrepresentation (see the report on a vote by Rep. Jim Coley) of how individual legislators voted.
As a result of the committee system and its potential for concealment or abuse, it is possible that many legislators would not have official recorded votes on bills or amendments as they come through the committee system. It is also likely, as demonstrated by the incidents involving Rep. Jim Colely or the vote record on the resolution addressing adjournment, that even the “official” recorded votes are not to be trusted.
Another problem that we learned decades ago is that there is an underground of information in the Legislature that the public may not see. For example, in the Special Session it was clear that the Senate Judiciary approved only a few bills and essentially decided “to table” almost all the rest. Ultimately, that helped to kill a lot of bad bills. However, that decision opened the door for potential abuse in the other house. The problem is that once a bill is known to be “dead” in one house, the legislators in the other house have some opportunities to vote on the record for or against bills with the only consequence being that they are able to create a paper trail voting record that may or may not reflect what they would do if the bill had a chance of passage. That is a lesson taught by a supportive and experienced legislator as a friendly word of advice more than 20 years ago.
Without trustworthy voting records, it is more difficult to determine whether a specific legislator is a Second Amendment proponent or not.
The problem with inconsistent records.
The question of whether a specific Legislator, in general, is strong for the Second Amendment or not is also difficult because each session there are perhaps 50-100 or more bills on Second Amendment issues. The Red Flag Special Session had over 100 bills filed and disposed of in just over one week.
The result of numerous bills being filed means that Legislators might vote acceptably on some bills and then vote poorly on other bills. The problem is compounded when these bills are also facing proposed amendments which might materially change a bill from an acceptable bill to one that would infringe the rights protected by the Second Amendment.
There is also the problem that some bills cover a variety of topics. The result is that one part of a bill might be fairly determined to be pro-Second Amendment and yet other parts of the bill are not. An example of this would be Governor Lee’s 2021 “permitless carry” law which some claim was “constitutional carry” (it clearly was not) or that it was at least a step in moving the “ball down the field” toward constitutional carry. Giving the legislators who supported it the benefit of the “ball down the field” perspective, one might assess that their votes on that bill were favorable. But, that same legislation made changes to Tennessee law which the state of Tennessee has now agreed in a March 2023 federal court settlement violate the Second Amendment, violate the 14th Amendment and constitute federal civil rights violations. So, does a specific legislator’s vote for that legislation constitute a pro-Second Amendment “move the ball” choice or does it represent an unconstitutional attack on our civil rights?
The problem is further compound because there can be proposed amendments which never receive a vote. Consider for example HB7041which appeared on its face to simply require the TBI to provide annual reports to the Governor, the Lt. Governor and the Speaker concerning TBI’s monitoring and activities involving human trafficking. After the Senate passed the bill, the House sponsor, Rep. William Lamberth, filed an amendment to only require that the TBI provide the report to the Speaker. That amendment was later withdrawn without any vote but the question remains why was it filed and then withdrawn? What purpose was there to even propose that the TBI report on human trafficking not be given to the Governor or the Lt. Governor?
The situation of HB7041 and Rep. Lamberth’s actions is merely an example to demonstrate that voters may find it difficult to determine whether a legislator can be trusted on constitutional issues when there are 100s of bills, hundreds of amendments and then other actions occurring all of which might be relevant to the question of that legislator’s position on Second Amendment issues.
So what does Bill Lee’s Special Session teach us about which Legislators are good or bad on the Second Amendment or which can be trusted? The answer is that it adds facts and evidence to an already intentionally obfuscated publicly discernible record. But these new facts and this new evidence is valuable and relevant.
There are clearly some Legislators whose “pro-Second Amendment bona fides” are reinforced or clarified. There are also some whose existing score for constitutional noncompliance or incompetence is likewise reinforced or clarified. There are some whose fitness as a public servant at all is now clearer – either stronger or weaker.
What is clear is that the public’s inquiry cannot stop with friendships, legislative statements, votes on single bills, appearances at pro-2nd Amendment events or re-election flyers. The answer lies not in a single video or speech.
Part of the efforts of Tennessee Firearms Association and its members is to provide information that is not easily publicly discernible. Part of your work is to get involved, determine facts without bias from friendship or untested assertions, and to strive to do your part as a voter and a citizen constituent to hold legislators – your legislators – accountable for their constitutional oaths.
Article I, Section 1 of the Tennessee Constitution makes clear that the citizens are not the subjects of government but that the citizens are the source of government. Our constitution provides “That all power is inherent in the people, and all free governments are founded on their authority, and instituted for their peace, safety, and happiness; for the advancement of those ends they have at all times, an unalienable and indefeasible right to alter, reform, or abolish the government in such manner as they may think proper.”
If you want a state and a nation that is properly functioning as a Republic, the burden is on the citizen to jealously monitor and protect the positions in government that are held by those who we select as our agents to perform the tasks of government as instructed by us. The burden is on the citizen to zealously guard that delegation of authority. The burden is on the citizen to remove the culls from public office that do not and perhaps never did properly function in that stewardship capacity.
To those who helped found, who volunteer their efforts and who otherwise support the efforts of the Tennessee Firearms Association, thank you. We have much work to do.