Aug 21, 2023 - Politics

Tennessee lawmakers begin special session responding to Covenant shooting

Illustration: Maura Losch/Axios

Lawmakers are returning to Nashville on Monday to begin the special session responding to The Covenant School shooting.

Why it matters: The special session allows lawmakers to fast-track legislation related to juvenile justice, school safety plans and mental health care, among other things.

Flashback: Gov. Bill Lee announced plans for the session this spring after the General Assembly failed to consider his plan to temporarily block people from having guns if they are deemed dangerous.

Yes, but: It is highly unlikely the plan will be debated at all, with most of the Republican supermajority in lockstep against any gun restrictions.

  • Democrats have criticized Lee's parameters for the special session, saying it limits debate on gun reforms while allowing for broad systemic changes unrelated to the school shooting.

Zoom in: Early bills already filed cover a range of topics.

  • One measure would allow the Department of Safety to distribute free gun locks to residents upon request while removing the state sales tax for gun safes and locks.
  • Another would allow officials to collect DNA for any suspect arrested on probable cause for a felony charge.
  • Courts would have a tighter deadline for sharing case information with the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation under another bill. (That legislation aims to improve delays that can affect the accuracy of background checks.)

What to watch: Tennessee House Speaker Cameron Sexton, who has long pushed for tougher sentencing laws, tells Axios he wants to strengthen juvenile sentencing during the session.

  • One bill would automatically transfer youths who are 16 or older into adult court on gun thefts or cases where the youth allegedly had a firearm during a crime.
  • Lawmakers will also be able to consider creating "blended sentencing" in which a juvenile offender could get a sentence that combines a juvenile court punishment with adult prison time. They could also make it harder to expunge juvenile court records.

What he's saying: "People are going to say, 'Well, that's not really part of Covenant,'" Sexton says. "No, but people are talking about increased crime and increased gun crimes, and a lot of that is happening with juveniles."

Of note: TBI records show juvenile arrests in 2022 were down by more than half compared to 2012.

The other side: Davidson County Juvenile Court Judge Sheila Calloway tells Axios her court is able to give youth a level of education and treatment that isn't available to those who go into the adult system.

  • Calloway adds that harsher juvenile sentences in the 1990s led to higher recidivism rates.
  • "That did not improve community safety. In fact, it did worse," she says. "It's like they are trying to solve a community problem in a way that could exacerbate the issues at hand."

Get more local stories in your inbox with Axios Nashville.


Support local journalism by becoming a member.

Learn more

More Nashville stories

No stories could be found


Get a free daily digest of the most important news in your backyard with Axios Nashville.


Support local journalism by becoming a member.

Learn more