The Misrepresentation of MaKayla’s Law


One of the most frustrating aspects of fighting for #MaKayla’s Law was the way the bill was deliberately misrepresented by the National Rifle Association and the legislators who do their bidding.

SB 2294/HB2058 MaKayla’s Law, was initially presented to the Senate Judiciary Committee on March 1st by Senate Sponsor and Judiciary Committee member Sara Kyle.  MaKayla’s mom testified, asking legislators to take steps to keep another child from suffering the same fate as her little girl.  “Safe storage saves lives,” she said. “It would have saved MaKayla’s.”

There was a good discussion on the bill, including impromptu testimony from District Attorney Ray Whitley who noted the difficulty of prosecuting these incidents under existing reckless endangerment laws and said he would support the bill.

Republican Senator Janet Bowling spoke in favor of the legislation, noting it simply codified into law recommended safe storage guidelines.  Republican Senator Kerry Roberts expressed shock that such a law wasn’t already on the books.

Senator Kyle ultimately asked to have the bill rolled two weeks so that she could meet with committee members and consider changes that would make the bill more amenable to the full committee.  Her goal was admirable: work with legislators from both sides of the aisle to create a nonpartisan, common sense piece of legislation to address a growing problem affecting the most vulnerable Tennesseans.

Public support of the bill was overwhelming.  Gun store owners, range instructors, gun owners, district attorneys, pediatricians, and citizens across the state all supported the legislation.

After consulting with a number of Republican colleagues and based on their recommendations, Senator Kyle amended MaKayla’s Law.  It actually began to look as though this much needed legislation might be passed.

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February 25, 2016 NBC News story on new Johns Hopkins School of Public Health Study 

Although Senator Kyle did not get another chance to present her bill to fellow Senate Judiciary Committee members (the bill was supposed to be heard on March 15th but was rolled due to time constraints), the bill and amendment were presented by House sponsor Sherry Jones and adopted in the House Civil Justice Subcommittee on March 16. (Representatives Lundberg and Carter inexplicably voted against the amendment. Representatives Jones, Beck, and Subcommittee Chair Republican Jim Coley voted for it).

The amended bill passed the Subcommittee (with Coley joining Beck and Jones) only to be defeated the next week after members of the full committee met in a closed-door pre-meeting and made the decision to kill the bill.  Since they’d had their discussion in private (and without any press present), when it came time to discuss the bill and vote on it in the actual committee hearing, all those voting “NO” offered no explanation for their vote.  In fact, a number of them made a point of ignoring the bill sponsor as she spoke, picking up their phones and shuffling through papers in front of them.  Chairman Coley, who voted for the bill in Subcommittee, voted against it in full committee under pressure from the NRA. (Following his vote for the bill in subcommittee, the NRA lobbyist confronted Coley immediately after the meeting.  A week later, Coley flipped his vote.  Offering no explanation, he voted against the bill in the full committee.)

The amendment “makes the bill” meaning it makes substantive changes. Specifically, the “recklessly place, leave, or store” language was removed and replaced with “the person in possession knows or should know is accessible.”  This is a slightly higher burden to prove and was a change made at the recommendation of Republican legislators.

Even more significant is the removal of the misdemeanor offense. In the original bill, it was stated in section (c) (1) – A violation would be a “Class A misdemeanor is a child under 13 years of age obtains possession of a firearm, left, placed, or stored in violation of subsection (a) but the child does not discharge the firearm or permit another to discharge it.”  This would have allowed a district attorney to bring charges if a child was seen with a gun or if they brought a gun to school.  Some legislators expressed concern with this part of the bill, uncertain how it would be enforced.  Again, in the spirit of compromise, Senator Kyle acquiesced.

This section of the bill was removed.

The only violations that remain in the amended bill are:

A Class E felony if the child obtains possession of the gun, discharges it, and causes bodily injury to themselves or someone else.

A Class C felony if the child obtains possession of the gun, discharges it, and kills themselves or someone else.

To be clear, the only time someone would have been charged with a crime under this law would have been if a child under 13-years-old found a loaded unsecured gun, fired it, AND injured or killed themselves or someone else with it.

The gun would have to be fired before the gun’s owner could be charged.  Someone, most likely a CHILD, would have to be shot to have been prosecuted under this law.  

These changes were made to make the bill more palatable to “pro-gun-rights” legislators.  The changes were offered as a compromise in good faith.  But, it didn’t matter because no matter how the bill was amended, the NRA wanted it killed and in the Tennessee legislature, the NRA gets what it wants.

In their weekly “NRA Action Alert” emails, they relentlessly targeted MaKayla’s Law, never once acknowledging the amendment but instead using misleading and deceptive language to describe the bill.  For two weeks in a row, the NRA alerts focused only on MaKayla’s Law, urging recipients to click a button that generated a pre-written email to all committee members, mischaracterizing the bill and the reasons to vote against it.  Nothing in the alert mentioned that charges would be brought ONLY in cases where a gun was fired and injured or killed someone.  Nothing in the alert addressed the fact that the NRA’s own safe storage guidelines say that guns must be locked when not in use and secured from unauthorized users, especially children.  Most notably, nothing in the bill reminded gun owners of the importance of keeping guns securely stored and out of the hands of children.

Instead, the bill (never called MaKayla’s Law by the NRA – no need to remind people that the legislation is named for an 8-year-old who’d still be alive had the gun used to kill her been unloaded.  Or locked in a safe. Or secured with a $2 trigger lock) was called “anti-gun” and legislation that “impacts your rights.”

Impacts your rights – if you are an irresponsible gun owner whose carelessness leads to injury or death of a child.

Because of limitations in the Tennessee Legislature’s public online bill tracking, it’s not always easy to find amendments to bills (the original and amended version are both below).  This sometimes means even the reporting on legislation may not be on the most recent version of the bill.  However, the NRA knows more about what happens in the legislature than most General Assembly members.  They were fully aware of the amendment.

Members of the House Civil Justice Subcommittee were made aware of the amendment – they voted on it – and the full House Civil Justice Committee members were also aware of the amendment.  They absolutely knew that it would only apply in situations where someone was injured or killed as a result of a child finding a loaded weapon and that voting against it would make it much harder to prosecute cases where kids were injured or killed with a loaded gun left accessible to kids.  They knew it and they voted against it.

The NRA’s plan was to confuse the intent of this law and to mislead the public about it. Their messaging never once addressed the amendment.  The legislators voting on the bill parroted the NRA’s messaging.  This is a well-known political strategy and one often employed by the NRA – confuse and obfuscate.  And no matter what, make sure that people are led to believe even the most common sense legislation is an attack on the second amendment and a scheme to disarm people.

Nevermind the fact that in the last year, 12 Tennessee kids have died in the last 15 months as a result of guns left loaded and accessible to children.  Nevermind the fact that our state is 9th in the nation for accidental shootings.  Nevermind that our state was noted in a national public health study as one of 7 states with a disproportionate number of accidental shootings and no safe storage laws.  

The legislators who went along with this plan should be ashamed of themselves. This bill would have had NO IMPACT WHATSOEVER on the vast majority of responsible gun owners in Tennessee.  This bill would ONLY have impacted an irresponsible gun owner whose disregard for common sense safe storage resulted in injury or death.

The legislators knew that but voted against the bill anyway.  The NRA knew that but told the legislators how to vote.  Don’t forget – it is an election year.

Meanwhile, the very week that Tennessee legislators decided to do absolutely nothing to address the issue of kids with access to loaded guns, a 14-year-old boy in Nashville accidentally shot himself and an 11-year-old girl in Memphis was accidentally shot by another 11-yearold who was playing with a gun.

Thanks to our lawmakers, it’s likely that no adults will be charged in either case.

A gun in the hand of a child was first in the hand of an adult.

Should we protect kids or irresponsible gun owners?  The NRA and our state legislators side with irresponsible gun owners.

SB2294/HB2058 – AS AMENDED:


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SB2294/HB2058 – ORIGINAL AS FILED WITH AMENDMENT CHANGING BILL NAME TO MAKAYLA’S LAW. (The first amendment to the bill re-named the bill MaKayla’s Law.)

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