Sam Stockard, Tennessee Lookout
A special session of the General Assembly designed to improve public safety in the wake of the Covenant School mass shooting wrapped up with violence and anger.
The House and Senate agreed to spend $110 million on an array of safety measures. But pushing, shoving and shouting ensued shortly before noon Tuesday as the House adjourned to the dismay of Tennesseans advocating for an array of gun reform and stronger orders of protection. The Republican-controlled chamber opted to finish its business shortly after the Senate adjourned sine die.
Most questions surrounded House Speaker Cameron Sexton’s departure from the dais where he bumped into state Rep. Justin Pearson, who held a sign saying “Protect kids not guns.”
Pearson claimed Sexton hit him with a shoulder, but Sexton said his security guard nudged him into Pearson and that Pearson then pushed him.
“He leaned his shoulder into me and then one of his minions pushed me toward the clerk,” said Pearson, a Memphis Democrat who was expelled from the House last spring for breaking decorum rules, then returned to the body and re-elected this summer.
Pearson also accused Sexton of “white supremacy,” saying the speaker started screaming, “Don’t you touch me!” after they bumped.
Several other lawmakers got involved in the skirmish, pushing and shoving and hollering. Pearson and House Majority Leader William Lamberth then went toe-to-toe momentarily before backing off.
Sexton, a Crossville Republican, said he didn’t throw a shoulder into Pearson, claiming instead that a member of his security detail put his hand on his back, which knocked him into a photographer and then Pearson came in and “pops me from the right side.”
Lamberth described the situation, saying Pearson became “angry and irate” and was aggressive toward Speaker Sexton, so he and other Republican lawmakers circled around so they could block him.
The House session ended similarly to the spring session when Republicans and Democrats clashed physically.
Republican Rep. Justin Lafferty claimed one of the Democrats brushed against him and called it a form of assault, but Sexton announced he would take it “under advisement.”
As House Republicans adjourned, Democrats booed and people in the gallery hissed and hollered, shouting that Sexton should be ejected.
The final moments overshadowed a “standoff” between the House and Senate that lasted for more than a week as senators said they planned to pass only a handful of bills compared to more than a dozen the House passed as part of Gov. Bill Lee’s special session.
Ultimately, the Senate concurred with a House version of a weapons storage bill that will offer sales tax breaks on gun safes and gun locks, in addition to spending $1.1 million for a public service campaign to give away gun locks.
As part of an agreement to adjourn, the Senate also opted to pass the House’s version of a spending bill that will put $30 million toward safety upgrades at state universities, $12 million toward behavioral health staff and $4 million into behavioral health safety grants, in addition to $50 million for community mental health agencies, with the latter money coming from a TennCare fund. Another $10 million will be spent on school safety officers, mainly for charter schools.
The Senate also went along with House versions of a human trafficking bill and a measure to codify the governor’s executive order on background checks.
Sexton initially said Tuesday he didn’t feel either the House or Senate won the stalemate. Yet he and Lamberth both said they were disappointed they didn’t accomplish more.
“At some point, when the other side says they’re not going to pass anything, at some point, you just say OK,” Sexton said.
Otherwise, lawmakers could have stayed in Nashville for weeks waiting each other out. The special session cost about $348,000.
Sexton pointed out, though, that approving $50 million for mental health agencies is an important move, in addition to the plan to increase college security.
In contrast, Democratic state Sen. Jeff Yarbro called the governor’s special session “an embarrassment and a farce,” and said the Legislature did nothing to improve public safety.
“The biggest consequence from this whole session is the embarrassment of the General Assembly through offensive measures used to keep people out of the building, silence members of the House and eject grieving moms from committees,” Yarbro said.
Lt. Gov. Randy McNally, however, called the governor’s special session a success, even though it was overshadowed, in part, by the “standoff” between the House and Senate, whose members refused to take up more than four bills.
“We identified some of the issues where there was some common ground, and that’s how you make deals like that,” McNally said.
Negotiations involved reaching an agreement on amendments to the governor’s bills and shifting money to pay for mental health treatment and university building safety.
Besides Tuesday’s scuffle, the special session was marred by House Democrats’ walkout Monday after Republicans voted to silence Democratic Rep. Justin Jones for violating new rules. Democrats claimed Jones was unfairly silenced after Republican Rep. Gino Bulso of Williamson County had strayed from the rules twice but without punishment.
House rules were designed to stop decorum violations. Signs also were to be banned until a Davidson County chancellor ordered small signs to be allowed.
Yet Gov. Bill Lee said Tuesday the special session made progress for public safety, even if it didn’t directly get at the root of the Covenant School shooting.
“This has been an important week for Tennessee, a difficult week but I believe a week that’s hopeful,” Lee said. “Public safety matters to every Tennessee, and it is a matter of urgency.”
Covenant School parents, however, felt let down by the Legislature, mainly the Senate for its refusal to pass a slate of bills, including one that would have made autopsy reports for minors exempt from the state’s public records law.
Tennessee Lookout is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Tennessee Lookout maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Holly McCall for questions: email@example.com. Follow Tennessee Lookout on Facebook and Twitter.