By Kathy Sinback, ACLU of Tennessee Executive Director

Last April, thousands of Tennesseans protested to demand commonsense gun safety laws after a school shooting left six people dead, including three children. Meanwhile, in the name of decorum, House Speaker Cameron Sexton led an unprecedented, authoritarian effort to silence those seeking such reforms, expelling two lawmakers for amplifying the voices of constituents. The expulsion process laid bare many politicians’ disgraceful disregard for democracy, manifest in the lack of debate about gun safety, the refusal to allow certain lawmakers to speak, the silencing of their mics when they tried to do their jobs anyway, and, ultimately, the stripping of representation from over 136,000 voters – predominantly people of color. 

Lawmakers’ opportunistic attempt to usurp the impending special session and ram through bills with sweeping, catastrophic consequences for civil liberties represents not only a continued failure to respond to constituents’ demands, but a doubling down on many politicians’ disdain for the democratic process. This is unacceptable.  

Around 19,000 Tennesseans submitted special session comments. Over 84% – or almost 16,000 politically diverse people – demanded that our children be protected from gun violence. And yet, Governor Lee’s tepid special session call blatantly disregards this bipartisan demand for action. Astoundingly, the only proposal directly related to guns in the special session call is a toothless “safe storage” law that provides tax breaks to gun lock manufacturers and adds safe storage to handgun safety courses that armed Tennesseans aren’t even required to take. Indeed, House Speaker Sexton stated, “...there’s no gun bills that can be passed” during the special session, and that lawmakers who tried to introduce gun bills are “...just upset because their ideas didn’t get put in because we don’t believe that they would fix anything.” In other words, the session hasn’t even started yet, and some mics are already being silenced.
Democracy hinges on robust public debate and civic participation, especially when civil rights and civil liberties are on the line. The governor's special session call indicates forthcoming bills that increase government surveillance and mass incarceration yet the public hasn’t seen many of the bills that are likely to significantly impact our rights and liberties, let alone had time to analyze them. Only a fraction of the bills legislators indicated are coming have been posted on the General Assembly’s website, and we are now days away from the first vote. 

The condensed nature of the special session – with usual legislative procedures abandoned, floor debate limited, and public participation in committee hearings stifled – ensures that the real decisions about which bills get passed are made behind closed doors by politicians and the extremist special interests they’re beholden to.  

Some of these bills could affect people’s lives permanently, such as transferring more youth to adult court. But this special session won’t allow time to discuss how this increases recidivism. Another bill would mandate DNA swabs from children and adults after all felony arrests, with little time to debate how this invades privacy and threatens individual liberties. Legislation expediting mental health commitments is likely, but time is limited to discuss the reality that many young Tennesseans referred to inpatient psychiatric facilities are warehoused in emergency rooms, receiving no mental health treatment at all. And bills requiring notification of law enforcement anytime someone is released from emergency inpatient mental health treatment will be voted on with little discussion of the danger of increasing surveillance, stigmatization, and disincentives to seeking care. 

ACLU-TN supports increased investments in quality mental health care. But legislators should not use a special session intended to discuss commonsense gun safety to pass sweeping criminal justice and mental health legislation that has not been reviewed, or even viewed, by the Tennesseans who will live with the consequences of these laws. 

Democracy requires that voters’ voices be heard and that elected officials have an opportunity to robustly debate issues of critical importance. We call for this special session to be used to take up the demands of thousands of Tennesseans to debate substantive gun safety laws, or to be cancelled entirely so that broader issues of criminal justice and mental healthcare can be given due consideration in a regular legislative session. 

This op-ed can also be seen in the Tennessean