Nashville students rally for tougher gun laws, as governor seeks armed guards for every school

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Thousands of Nashville-area students walked out of their schools Monday and converged outside the Tennessee State Capitol to demand stronger gun laws after last week’s mass shooting at a small private school in the city.

The walkout began at 10:13 a.m., marking one week since Nashville police received the first call about an active shooter at The Covenant School, who killed three children and three adult staff members on March 27.

“We all want to live through high school,” said 17-year-old Amy Goetzinger, one of the earliest students to arrive at Monday’s rally, “and that’s why we’re here today.”

Meanwhile, Gov. Bill Lee proposed another $155 million to place an armed security guard at every Tennessee public school, boost physical school security at both public and private schools, and provide additional mental health resources for Tennesseans. Currently, about two-thirds of the state’s nearly 2,000 public schools have a law enforcement officer on site.

The governor said those steps, if approved by the legislature, would immediately increase safety for students and teachers. He promised more actions will follow.

“There is a serious conversation needed about school safety,” Lee said. “It must begin with the recognition that we cannot control evil, but we can do something.”

The student protest was mobilized through March for Our Lives, a youth-led movement for stricter gun laws that was formed after the 2018 shooting that killed 17 students and staff at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.

In a tweet calling for Monday’s walkout, the group noted Tennessee’s legislature has passed laws in recent years banning or restricting many things — but not assault weapons.

“It’s not drag queens, it’s not books, it’s not Black history, it’s not trans rights — GUNS are KILLING KIDS,” the tweet said.

Later Monday, parents and elementary-age kids participated in an ABC Not NRA rally, just as lawmakers convened for this week’s legislative business.

Students chant: ‘Ban assault weapons!’

The protests were the latest in a string of peaceful but loud demonstrations against Tennessee’s lax gun laws after the 28-year-old intruder used military-style guns to shoot through a locked glass door and enter the private Christian school, indiscriminately shooting victims before being shot and killed by police.

In a police update Monday, authorities said they have not identified a motive behind the shooting but have determined that the attacker, identified as Audrey Hale, acted alone and had been planning the massacre for months. Police said Hale fired 152 rounds of ammunition at the school before being fatally shot about 14 minutes after entering. 

Easy access to military-style guns was the No. 1 concern identified by students as they assembled on Nashville Legislative Plaza and at one point climbed the steps to surround the stone Capitol building. Under a misty rain, they chanted “Ban assault weapons!” “Do your job!” and “This is what democracy looks like!”

An hour into the rally, hundreds more students and faculty from Vanderbilt University marched in on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard yelling “Fee-fi-fo-fum, watch out, Bill Lee, here we come.” 

“Guns are the No. 1 killer of children, of teenagers, and of college-age students, both in the United States of America and right here in Tennessee. That’s not normal,” Jayce Pollard, a 20-year-old Vanderbilt student, told the crowd.

Fifteen-year-old Clara Thorsen said she walked out of Hillsboro High School, a public school just down the road from where the shooting happened, to show solidarity with other youth who fear for their lives under the state’s current gun laws.

“I want to be part of this and make change in our society, because we sure need it,” said Thorsen, who came with several classmates driven to the Capitol by her mom.

Margo Jenkins, another 15-year-old from Hillsboro High, said she came as a student journalist for her school’s newspaper. She planned to write a piece about “the power of protest.”

Citing safety concerns, Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools had urged students to assert their voices by participating in “walk-in rallies” inside the district’s 23 high schools, instead of attending the protest at the Capitol.

But district Director Adrienne Battle said later that most students who walked out worked with their parents and school leaders to follow appropriate procedures.

“While most students aren’t of age to vote, their voices in this conversation matter greatly,” Battle said, “and I hope lawmakers and officials will listen.”

Lee stands by his policies on gun access

The governor was flanked by top Republican lawmakers as he spoke with reporters for the first time in the week since the shooting.

Pressed about state laws governing gun access, Lee said he prefers to keep a 2021 statute that he led the charge for allowing residents 21 and older to carry handguns in public without a permit.

A bill in the legislature would lower the age to 18.

“I think the bill that I proposed and brought forward is a bill that is designed for law-abiding citizens,” Lee said.

In reference to police reports that the shooter had been under a doctor’s care for an undisclosed “emotional disorder,” the governor encouraged the General Assembly to bring him legislation that would prevent people who are in the midst of a mental health crisis from having access to weapons — as long as the measure would not impede Second Amendment rights.

“That is the way forward,” he said.

But one Democratic leader was unimpressed by the governor’s immediate proposals to further fortify school campuses, without calling for significant gun reforms.

“It’s been a whole week since The Covenant School shooting, and Bill Lee has yet to utter the word gun,” said House Democratic Caucus Chairman John Ray Clemmons, of Nashville.

“I am appalled that Governor Lee would rather militarize our schools and make our children feel imprisoned in their own learning environment than reach across the aisle to pass common sense gun safety legislation,” Clemmons said.

The governor said he welcomed Monday’s protests. His message to the students? “You’re heard!” Lee said. And “please don’t let this be the last time you come to the Capitol.”

But 19-year-old Vanderbilt student Iman Omer said elected officials aren’t hearing the voices of Tennessee’s children and youth who fear for their safety in school.

“We all are living in constant fear of gun violence,” she said, “and that’s because gun violence is all around us. 

“And we won’t accept it anymore.”

This story has been updated.

Marta Aldrich is a senior correspondent and covers the statehouse for Chalkbeat Tennessee. Contact her at maldrich@chalkbeat.org.