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Parents who lobbied for curtailing access to guns after a horrific school shooting in Nashville blasted the Tennessee legislature’s special session on public safety, which ended Tuesday without the passage of a single bill targeting the state’s lax gun laws.
In their six days of work, lawmakers approved three bills designed to speed up background checks, provide free gun locks to Tennessee residents, and require an annual state report on human trafficking.
Another approved measure, which appropriates money to cover the estimated $340,000 cost of the session, also includes extra funding for school safety officers, mental health resources and workers, and an advertising campaign encouraging gun owners to lock up their weapons.
But none of the bills that passed specifically address concerns about easy access to guns that were raised by the March 27 shooting at Nashville’s Covenant School, where a 28-year-old intruder used legally purchased guns to shoot through glass doors and kill three students and three adults. Authorities said the shooter, who died after being shot by police, was under a doctor’s care for an “emotional disorder.”
The disconnect — after days of protests, prayers, and pleas for meaningful reforms — left parents, students, and gun control activists angry.
“We’re talking about life and death, and this legislature has basically done nothing,” said Sierra Barnett, a mother of two preschoolers in Mt. Juliet, near Nashville.
Barnett was among the throng of mostly female demonstrators who showed up daily during the session to urge lawmakers to pass a bill letting judges order the removal of firearms from people at risk of hurting themselves and others.
“I’m devastated, and I hope people are paying attention,” she said tearfully in the Capitol Rotunda after lawmakers had exited. “I’m praying there’s an uproar across the state of Tennessee.”
Governor calls extra funding a victory
Gov. Bill Lee, who was largely absent during the gun debate after lawmakers convened on Aug. 21, framed the session’s output as “important, difficult, and hopeful.”
“We made progress and elevated a conversation about public safety that will continue into the future,” he told reporters.
In his remarks, Lee cited the legislature’s appropriation of more than $100 million in additional one-time funding as a victory, including:
- $50 million to bolster community mental health agencies;
- $30 million for safety upgrades at higher education education institutions;
- $10 million in K-12 safety grants to provide school resource officers for charter schools or school safety officers for schools that can’t immediately hire an SRO due to a shortage of law enforcement officers;
- $12 million for sign-on and retention bonuses for mental health workers in the state Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services;
- $4 million for behavioral health safety net grants;
- $3 million for a scholarship program for people wanting to work in the mental health field;
- $1.6 million to provide free gun locks to Tennessee residents and to pay for an ad campaign on gun safety through the state Department of Safety
“Our state is safer today as a result of this session,” said Lee, noting that the legislature also invested $230 million more in school safety earlier this year.
But outnumbered Democrats slammed the governor and GOP leadership for results that they called “fluff” and “solution-less.”
“It’s been a complete waste of time,” said House Minority Leader Karen Camper, of Memphis. “The people wanted more and expected more.”
“No one should leave this building saying we made Tennessee safer,” said Senate Minority Leader Raumesh Akbari, also of Memphis, where 115 children have been injured or killed in gun violence since January.
“People made a lot of promises. When we come back in January” for the regular legislative session, Akbari added, “we sure as hell better do something.”
Lee’s proclamation put gun control proposals out of reach
More than a hundred bills were filed based on Lee’s official proclamation, which called lawmakers back to the Capitol and identified 18 potential topics, from school safety to juvenile justice to mental health. But the governor backed off of his early proposal for a law to keep guns out of the hands of people having a mental health crisis.
Democrats complained that parameters set by Lee left little room for meaningful gun reforms in one of the most gun-friendly states in America. For instance, Lee said lawmakers could pass measures that encourage safe storage of firearms, but not enact penalties for failing to do so.
Lee’s proclamation opened the door, however, to proposals that could put more guns in schools — several of which advanced out of House committees but ultimately stalled.
One proposal to let citizens with enhanced permits carry handguns in schools narrowly failed in the House Education Committee after clearing two earlier panels, while Rep. Ryan Williams of Cookeville pulled his bill to arm teachers who meet certain requirements. Williams said the legislature can take up his bill next year in regular session.
The House sought to pass more than a dozen bills, including ones requiring all public and private schools to create alarm policies that differentiate emergencies for fire, weather, or an active shooter; expand handgun carry policies at private schools to include pre-K; enact harsher penalties for juvenile offenders; and increase penalties for stalking.
But the Senate worked to limit the number of bills debated. On the session’s third day, its education committee met for less than a minute and tabled all 21 items on its agenda.
Ultimately, the Senate’s refusal to negotiate differences with the House led to an abrupt adjournment of both chambers.
“You’ve done nothing!” “Do your job!” “Vote them out!” chanted spectators as Republican leaders gaveled out their daily sessions.
Legislative process unraveled amid political infighting
The session in Nashville was frequently chaotic, with issues about school and public safety often overshadowed by political infighting, the expulsion of protesters, GOP efforts to limit public access to the Capitol, a lawsuit over new House rules prohibiting spectators from holding up paper signs, and several incidents of representatives shoving each other on the floor of the House in the tense minutes after adjournment.
“Things got hot,” House Speaker Cameron Sexton said about brief physical interactions that involved him, Republican Reps. Justin Lafferty of Knoxville and Scott Cepicky of Culleoka, and Democratic Reps. Justin Jones of Nashville and Justin Pearson of Memphis.
“We’re moving forward from it,” Sexton said when asked if he would pursue disciplinary action against those involved. “At this point, I think everybody needs to figure out how to calm down.”
Parents of several students at The Covenant School, who actively lobbied for several bills to bolster school safety and mental health, said they had hoped for more out of their elected officials. Several were in tears at various points throughout the week as they tried to advocate for legislation on behalf of their children and the victims killed at their private Christian school: Evelyn Dieckhaus, Hallie Scruggs, and William Kinney, all age 9; custodian Mike Hill and substitute teacher Cynthia Peak, both 61, and Katherine Koonce, 60, the head of the school.
“Today is a difficult day,” said David Teague, a father of two children at Covenant. “A tremendous opportunity to make our children safer and create brighter tomorrow’s has been missed. And I am saddened for all Tennesseans.”
Sarah Shoop Neumann, another Covenant parent, called for respectful, thoughtful, bipartisan debate going forward to work to diminish gun violence.
“Those who are not of this mindset do not deserve a seat in the House or the Senate,” Neumann said, “and we will work toward ensuring every one of those seats is replaced by someone who has a true desire to listen to their constituents over firearm association lobbyists.”
“We will be back in January.”
Marta Aldrich is a senior correspondent and covers the statehouse for Chalkbeat Tennessee. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.