NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee has signed off on additional protections for gun and ammunition dealers, manufacturers and sellers against lawsuits within a bill that lawmakers passed after a deadly school shooting in March.
The Republican governor quietly signed the legislation Thursday. Its provisions kick in on July 1.
The state Senate gave final passage to the bill in mid-April, just weeks after the March 27 shooting at The Covenant School in Nashville that killed six people, including three 9-year-olds. The House had passed it before the shooting.
Lee's choice to sign the bill comes as he keeps pushing for the same Republican lawmakers, who hold supermajorities in the House and Senate, to pass a proposal that aims to keep guns away from people who could harm themselves or others. Lee plans to call lawmakers back into an August special session that aims "to strengthen public safety and preserve constitutional rights" after they adjourned last month without taking up his "temporary mental health order of protection" proposal. His office hasn't released the parameters of what version of that proposal, or others, will be considered in the session yet.
The expansion of civil immunity for gun companies was hardly in doubt after lawmakers passed it. Lee has never issued a veto, which lawmakers would have the numbers to override. However, he occasionally has allowed bills to take effect without his signature to signal his concerns or disapproval of a policy.
Democratic lawmakers have blasted the move to prioritize legal protections to the gun industry in the wake of the shooting. Three Senate Republicans voted against the legislation, which came before them in the middle of weeks of public pressure, protests and marches to pass gun control reforms. Only Democrats opposed the bill in the House vote before the shooting.
"With regards to the law, the GOP supermajority is more focused on protecting firearms and manufacturers and dealers than protecting our children and communities," Rep. John Ray Clemmons, the House Democratic caucus chairman from Nashville, said in an interview Monday.
The bill's sponsor, Republican Sen. Joey Hensley from Hohenwald, said during a floor debate last month that his legislation doesn't prevent any other proposal from passing to make changes after the shooting. He said the bill aims to help out businesses in Tennessee's booming firearms industry.
The Tennessee bill spells out a half-dozen situations in which gun and ammo companies could be held civilly liable in Tennessee state courts, exempting others.
The firearm industry remains largely shielded from liability under federal law. Seventeen states do not have special immunity for the gun industry. Tennessee was already not one of those states before the bill's approval, according to Everytown for Gun Safety, a gun control advocacy group. In recent years, some states have moved in the opposite direction of Tennessee by rolling back legal protections for gun manufacturers and dealers.
Last year, Remington, the company that made the rifle used in the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre in Connecticut, settled with the families of those killed in the shooting for $73 million. The families had accused the company of targeting younger, at-risk males in advertising and product placement in violent video games.
And in February, families of those killed and injured in a 2018 Texas high school shooting settled a lawsuit they filed against a Tennessee-based online retailer, Lucky Gunner, that was accused of illegally selling ammunition to the student who authorities say fatally shot 10 people. Some of the settlement specifics in the case in the Texas court system were kept confidential.
The owner of the company, Jordan Mollenhour, sits on the Tennessee State Board of Education. The company was accused of failing to verify Dimitrios Pagourtzis' age — he was 17, at the time — when he bought more than 100 rounds of ammunition on two occasions before the May 2018 shooting at Santa Fe High School.