Former Rep. Justin Jones, D-Nashville, receives a hug from Janet Wolf in the gallery of the House chamber after he was expelled from the legislature on Thursday, April 6, 2023, in Nashville, Tenn. Tennessee Republicans are seeking to oust three House Democrats including Jones for using a bullhorn to shout support for pro-gun control protesters in the House chamber. (AP Photo/George Walker IV)

After six people, including three children, were murdered at The Covenant School in Nashville, Tennessee’s Republican state legislators signaled they would not rush to pass any legislation related to gun policies. Instead, less than two weeks after the crimes, they rushed to expel two of their Democratic colleagues for protesting the inaction on the House floor.  

The choice to subvert democracy instead of using democracy is a disturbing and needlessly divisive choice, especially since a politically unifying policy option could be passed so easily: a red flag law. 

In the aftermath of the Uvalde, Texas school massacre, Congress did something it hadn’t done in 28 years: pass a federal bipartisan gun safety law. While neither chamber considered anything that smacked of heavy-handed federal regulation, members of both parties agreed on the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act, which provides funds to states that pass “red flag laws” to help with implementation. Such laws allow law enforcement officers (and sometimes, other individuals such as family members) to obtain court orders, known as Extreme Risk Protection Orders (ERPOs), that prevent people who pose a risk to themselves or others from buying and possessing guns. 

When President Joe Biden signed the law last June, 19 states already had red flag laws. More than nine months later, that number is still only 19. 

If Tennessee had been the 20th, maybe six people wouldn’t have been murdered at The Covenant School in Nashville.  

The Nashville police chief said the perpetrator, Audrey Hale, “was under a doctor’s care for an emotional disorder” and that “her parents felt that she should not own weapons. The parents felt that Audrey had one weapon and that she sold it.” Hale’s parents were unaware that other weapons, which were legally purchased, were hidden in the house. (The chief used female pronouns, though Hale’s LinkedIn page had used male pronouns.)  

With a red flag law in place, Hale’s parents would have been able to act on their concerns and petition for an ERPO. Then Hale would not have been able to legally purchase the weapons used in the killings. Said Veronica Pear, an epidemiologist and assistant professor at the University of California, Davis, who specializes in gun violence, “This is kind of the poster child case of why a state would want a law like this in the books.” 

Red flag laws are hardly a panacea to the gun violence crisis. A September 2022 Associated Press analysis found that most states with such laws are issuing very few ERPOs and “few people outside law enforcement are even aware the laws exist.”  Nevertheless, the laws almost certainly save some lives. A study published in December analyzing 6,787 ERPOs over six states found that 662, nearly 10 percent, involved a person who threatened to kill three or more people. But the reduction of mass shootings is not the only benefit. Duke University professor Jeffrey W. Swanson studied ERPOs and their effect on suicides in two states. He concluded that, as The New York Times reported, “for every 10 to 20 people who had guns taken away, one life was saved.” The AP story found that 15,049 instances of firearms being confiscated under ERPOs; that may well have saved 1,500 lives.  

The substantive case for a red flag law is straightforward, and the political case is also strong. Nationally, according to an August poll from the University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy and The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research, 78 percent of respondents support the concept. And a Vanderbilt Center for Child Health Policy poll of Tennessee parents, taken last autumn, found that 64 percent support it. (Only 36 percent of Tennessee parents support arming teachers.) With the new federal law providing money for states that adopt red flag legislation, Tennessee has every reason to proceed. 

And yet, Republican Tennessee House members, who convene less than nine miles from the school, chose to channel their energies into expelling Democratic state representatives Justin Jones and Justin Pearson rather than finding solutions to gun violence. An expulsion vote for a third Democrat, Gloria Johnson, failed. The trio took part in a disruptive rally on the state House floor demanding action on guns. Their actions broke House rules. But as The Tennessean editorial board argued, “making their outburst grounds for expulsion is outrageous” and completely disregards historical precedent.  

The expulsions moved at lightning speed. But leading Republicans have pleaded for time when it came to passing legislation. The day after the murders, Republican Governor Bill Lee sought to tamp down calls for fast action, saying, “There will come a time to discuss and debate policy. But this is not a time for hate or rage.” Then the Senate Judiciary Committee chair said that time was 2024, and he would not discuss “anything related to gun bills this year.” 

Playing for time while public memory fades is a tried-and-true strategy for gun rights advocates. But the removal of duly elected state House members, in the words of The Tennessean editorial board, risks “making political martyrs of the three Democrats” and maintaining a public spotlight on the gun issue. 

Perhaps that spotlight will show that a red flag law can pass with bipartisan support. Top Republicans, though hesitant to quickly legislate, seem reluctant to rule it out. Lieutenant Governor and Senate Speaker Randy McNally (yes, that Randy McNally) said, “That’s something I would support,” so long as there were protections for people impacted by false accusations. And Governor Lee left the door open to a red flag law, saying on Friday, “Individuals who are a threat to themselves or to others shouldn’t have access to weapons.” Then on Monday, Lee added, “What I think is most important [is] keeping those that are a danger away from weapons and protecting constitutional rights. That is something that can be done. And we should find a way to do that … whatever that looks like. I’m open to that.” 

Also, Lee’s two most recent predecessors, Republican Bill Haslam and Democrat Phil Bredesen, penned a joint op-ed for The Tennessean that read, “We could start with ‘red flag’ laws.” 

Still, getting a red flag law passed in a conservative state where more than half of adults have guns in their homes will not be easy and likely will require considerable outside pressure. One source of pressure should come from the Republicans and Democrats in Washington who passed the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act, including the lead Senate negotiators Kyrsten Sinema, John Cornyn, and Thom Tillis. These people supposedly want their handiwork to succeed and not be remembered as a toothless bill that failed to encourage a single new state to adopt a red flag law. They should be seizing media platforms to remind Tennesseans that both parties in Washington came together to support this policy because it was a common-sense solution. The state should use the federal help available to do the same.  

Assault weapons bans and other broad gun control policies are obviously non-starters in a state like Tennessee. Democrats need not harp on such polarizing ideas and stoke Tennessee Republicans’ fears that passing a red flag law could be a slippery slope. Yesterday’s undemocratic actions by the Tennessee House have already recklessly polarized a state still in mourning. Getting the heavily conservative state legislature to accept a red flag law will require de-polarization. That means tapping Republicans who have supported these laws who can convince GOP lawmakers in the state that they won’t be getting crosswise with their political base by actually doing something that could reduce gun deaths.  

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Bill Scher

Bill Scher is political writer at the Washington Monthly. He is the host of the history podcast When America Worked and the cohost of the bipartisan online show and podcast The DMZ. Follow Bill on Twitter @BillScher.