How activism works: Gov. Bill Lee of Tennessee suddenly pushing gun reform
Though it's just a start, it wouldn't be happening but for the Tennessee 3, legislators who led protests and faced expulsion, captivating the nation.
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Just two weeks ago, Governor Bill Lee of Tennessee, who lost two friends in the Covenant School mass shooting in Nashville, said it was "not the time" to talk about gun reform.
But after massive protests by Nashville students converging on the state capitol, and nationwide outrage over the expulsion of two of the three legislators who helped lead protestors chants on the House floor — both Black men — Lee appears to be changing his tune.
Lee rather quietly signed an executive order last night strengthening background checks on gun purchases. He also urged the Republicans in the legislature to pass red flag laws (though he didn’t use that term), which would prevent people who are deemed dangerous from getting guns.
"This is our moment to lead and to give the people of Tennessee what they deserve," Lee told reporters during a news conference to honor Nashville officers who responded to the shooting at the Covenant School on March 27.
The executive order, Lee said, would attempt to beef up background checks by requiring that criminal activity by a gun owner be reported to authorities. It would also require the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation to examine the state’s current "process for purchasing firearms and submit a report within 60 days.
It is time to listen to voters calling for gun reform, Lee said. "It’s going to require coming together, laying down our previously held positions, potentially," he said.
"Time to listen to voters." That’s quite a shocker!
And how did that come about? Because the voters made themselves heard after Republicans, with a supermajority in the House, engaged in the racist, authoritarian spectacle of removing two Black men, Reps. Justin Jones and Justin Pearson, from the House via expulsion.
As the entire world watched, the GOP made Jones and Pearson, as well as Rep. Gloria Johnson, a White woman who survived the expulsion by one vote, political superstars. Yesterday, the Nashville City Council unanimously reinstated Jones pending a special election, which he will surely win. Today, the Shelby County Commissioners in Memphis will move to reinstate Pearson.
At first, it seemed that all the GOP accomplished was making these Black men they expelled stronger, allowing the opposition to organize, waking up a sleeping giant, and portraying themselves as hard-core, old-style Southern racists. Even if their base liked that last bit, the downside was devastating.
But now we see the GOP accomplished something else through their actions: They spurred the Republican governor to actually do something about gun reform, clearly realizing the gerrymandered Republican supermajority, which has outsized power in the state, had overstepped.
Lee, unlike them, faces statewide office, so no gerrymander keeps in him place, though he benefits from voter suppression laws. He might face a primary challenger or even a Democratic opponent who could use the issue against him. Even in red Tennessee nothing is certain. A Democrat, Andy Bashear, was elected governor in neighboring and equally red Kentucky just a few years ago after all.
But probably more so, Lee is thinking of higher office. Maybe becoming a U.S. senator or even a presidential candidate. Whatever the reasons, he decided something had to be done.
Does anyone doubt that he’d be doing anything if not for the protests, the expulsions, and then the massive outrage and national reaction to the expulsions?
Before getting too excited, however, let’s understand that Lee is looking for political cover and doesn’t really care about passing gun legislation and making the world safer. If he did, he’d have pushed for measures long ago. So he’ll do whatever little bit is necessary to make things simmer down.
As I said, he didn’t use the term "red flag laws" and also didn’t identify any sponsors among Republicans in the legislature for any bill. And even if he did get this passed, it’s the bare minimum. Lee is just looking to take some heat off. And already, he’s getting pushback from the gun lobby:
The Tennessee Firearms Association, which calls itself a "no-compromise gun organization," dismissed Lee’s efforts. "In the past week, gun control advocates and abolitionists have taken advantage of the intentional murder of innocent victims at a private school in order to renewed their agenda to eliminate as much possible civilian firearms ownership," the group said in a statement.
All of this means that the protests must continue. Lee responded to the anger and horror expressed by people across Tennessee and the United States. As Justin Jones was sworn in again this week, he vowed to remain vigilant and keep the issue of gun reform front and center by introducing bills. And he called on the House speaker to resign.
Leeann Hewlitt with Moms Demand Action told The Washington Post: "For our teachers, children, family, and friends, this is an important first step on a long journey to protect Tennesseans against reckless acts of gun violence. This is not when we stop, but when we get louder."
Exactly. Whether it was AIDS activists in ACT UP stopping traffic and shutting down speeches by government bureaucrats or 1960s civil rights activists sitting in at lunch counters and marching on Washington, protest has been necessary to get any action. Activism works. Now let’s use it to get a lot more accomplished.