Tennessee lawmakers pass bill to involuntarily commit some defendants judged incompetent for trial

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Tennessee’s Republican-led Legislature unanimously passed a bill Monday that would involuntarily commit certain criminal defendants for inpatient treatment and temporarily remove their gun rights if they are ruled incompetent to stand trial due to intellectual disability or mental illness.

The proposal is named for college student Jillian Ludwig, who was killed in November after she was hit by a stray bullet while walking near the Belmont University campus in Nashville.

The suspect charged in her shooting had faced three charges of assault with a deadly weapon from 2021, but a judge dismissed the charges when three doctors testified that he was incompetent to stand trial because he is severely intellectually disabled. Because he did not qualify for involuntary commitment to a mental health institution, he was released from prison.

Ludwig’s family traveled from New Jersey to be on hand Monday while the House voted on the bill and then honored her with a resolution. Her mother cried and held a photo of her as the vote was cast on the bill, and as the resolution was read.

“You sent your little girl off to another state, and you hoped it was safe,” House Majority Leader William Lamberth said, speaking to Ludwig’s family in the gallery. “Her life matters. We are working to make sure this state is safer today.”

The bill now goes to Republican Gov. Bill Lee’s desk for his signature.

The bill’s requirements would kick in for defendants charged with felonies or class A misdemeanors. The person would remain committed until they are deemed competent to stand trial, or until the court approves a mandatory outpatient treatment plan that accounts for the community’s safety.

A defendant could attempt to convince a judge not to commit them by providing clear and convincing evidence that they don’t pose a substantial likelihood of serious harm.

The bill would make it a state-level class A misdemeanor to possess or try to buy a gun when a judge deems someone mentally “defective” or commits them to a mental institution. Federal law already includes criminal charges in that situation.

Gov. Lee’s latest budget proposal includes $2.1 million to help fund possible additional involuntary commitment under the state Department of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities.

Tempers briefly flared after Democratic Rep. Bo Mitchell said the bill was a step in the right direction, but also chided Republicans for shutting down discussion of gun control bills — a trend that the GOP supermajority have maintained for nearly a year after a shooter killed six people, including three young children, at a private Nashville school. He suggested passage of a red-flag style proposal to keep guns away from people judged to be a danger to themselves or others, or a three-day waiting period for gun purchases.

Lamberth responded that Mitchell was pontificating on other proposals.

“This is the step that I took. This is the bill that I filed. This is the family I’m fighting for,” Lamberth said, his voicing rising to a shout.

Mitchell responded angrily.

“Don’t act like I don’t care about that family,” Mitchell said, yelling that Republicans should have already enacted gun control laws that could have prevented tragedies like what happened to Jillian Ludwig.

The discussion cooled down when Republican Rep. Ryan Williams introduced Ludwig’s family and friends.

Over in the Senate, the debate was much more restrained and limited on Monday. Only two Democrats spoke in favor of the bill but raised some concerns about the state having enough resources to enforce the proposed changes effectively.

The chamber then voted unanimously to send the proposal to the governor.

“This is the first time that I know of that we’ve addressed gun violence in this state,” said Democratic Sen. Heidi Campbell.


Associated Press writer Kimberlee Kruesi contributed to this report.

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