NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — The administration of Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee accused the National Rifle Association of trying to use involuntary commitment laws “to round up mentally ill people and deprive them of other liberties,” according to documents prepared by the agency’s staffers. Republican as part of their first attempt to pass a gun control bill earlier this year.
The memos, provided by Lee’s office as part of a public records request, reveal a rare critique of the Republican governor’s powerful gun lobby. Lee has previously praised the NRA’s efforts to protect the Second Amendment, but has since faced opposition from the group as he works to pass gun control legislation in response to a deadly Nashville school shooting that occurred in late March .
So far, Lee has suggested keeping firearms away from people who could injure themselves or others. He is currently facing backlash from both the GOP-dominant General Assembly and gun rights advocacy groups, including the NRA, who are wary of relaxing gun laws in ruby Tennessee. The NRA’s opposition is particularly notable because the group was a critical player in Lee’s successful 2021 effort to pass a law allowing people 21 and older to carry handguns without a license in Tennessee.
That means Lee has been forced to go on the defensive, arguing that what he has proposed is not, in fact, a so-called red flag law, such as those passed by other states in the wake of tragedies. Instead, the conversation topics show him trying to sell his proposal as “the most conservative in the country” and the best plan for “Second Amendment defenders.” He is also targeting lawyers who want to focus on Tennessee laws that allow people to commit crimes without their consent if they pose “a significant likelihood of serious harm” as a result of a “mental illness or severe emotional disorder.”
“Not only is the NRA’s proposal impractical — it would dramatically expand the government’s scope,” one of the memos reads.
When announcing his plan in April, Lee acknowledged the involuntary commitment advocates but did not name the NRA.
“Some Second Amendment proponents say something called ‘involuntary incorporation’ is the answer, but that would limit all sorts of constitutional rights, including the Second Amendment,” Lee said at the time. “It’s not the best way.”
Speaking to reporters on Wednesday, House Speaker Cameron Sexton lowered expectations that Lee’s proposal has a chance of going further, saying he doesn’t think he and his fellow Republican lawmakers support red flag-style laws. He said some other policy areas could be considered: involuntary admission, more beds for mental patients, better database updates for background checks, a new state-level offense that goes beyond federal law that prohibits felons from having a certain amount of ammunition, and the broadening state law so that more types of violent threats can be considered a crime.
“If you look at what the NRA is saying, do you currently have any laws on the books — emergency, involuntary hospitalization,” Sexton told The Associated Press on Wednesday. “And so, use what you have.”
The governor initially unveiled his legislation just weeks after six people — including three young children — were killed in a shooting at a Nashville school. Lee’s wife, Maria, was friends with the school principal and a substitute teacher who was among the dead.
Despite Lee’s urging for lawmakers to pass his proposal, GOP leaders have resisted. The legislature adjourned in April without taking up the issue, but Lee has since called on them to return at the end of August to discuss the matter.
The documents reviewed by the AP show that Lee’s administration drafted the talking points in April. They tout the governor’s proposal as “more focused and more limited” than what the NRA currently supports. It’s unclear where the memos were distributed or how many people outside Lee’s office received them.
In the memo, Lee’s office wrote that the NRA’s plan “fails to get to the heart of the problem because it fails to address unstable individuals who suffer from mental health problems but are not eligible for involuntary institutionalization.” .”
“Government Lee believes the best way forward is through practical, thoughtful solutions to keep communities safe and protect constitutional rights,” his spokesman, Jade Byers, said in an emailed statement. lawmakers on proposals in the coming months.”
In an April memo, the NRA’s lobbying arm urged its supporters to oppose Lee’s plan. The group noted that “Tennessee already has broad civil bond laws” and added that the state could improve access to emergency mental health care.
When asked about the governor’s office talking points about their group, NRA spokesperson Amy Hunter declined to comment on the claims, saying in a statement that the group’s focus is on “preserving and advancing the rights of law-abiding gun owners in Tennessee.”