After Nashville school shooting, Tennessee lawmakers consider changes to the state’s gun laws
Lawmakers in the traditionally conservative state of Tennessee are going back the statehouse to consider changes to the state’s gun laws and other public safety matters. The special session was called after a Nashville school shooting earlier this year prompted thousands of people to flood to the Capitol to make their voices heard on the issue. (Aug. 18)
LOOKOUT MOUNTAIN, Tenn. — On a recent summer evening on Lookout Mountain, Isabel McCall’s dining room looked unusually empty.
The table stood alone, picked clean of its chairs, as McCall conscripted spare seating here and there to pile into her living room. Soon, dozens of women began walking up her front drive and lawn, squeezing themselves in to sit shoulder-to-shoulder on the McCalls’ spare chairs and couches.
They’d come to hear about gun reform, to listen to a pediatric trauma surgeon describe the near-futility of trying to save a child whose body has been destroyed by a semi-automatic rifle and to discuss how to advocate for change ahead of the state special session this Monday. Tennessee lawmakers will reconvene for a public safety session, which was sparked by the March shooting deaths of three third graders and three staff members at The Covenant School in Nashville.
The session — a demand from Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee to some reluctant lawmakers, at least among the Republican supermajority — is poised to swing the national spotlight once again to Nashville on an issue that has mobilized thousands of Tennesseans who would not have previously described themselves as politically active. Some Tennesseans are also concerned that the politically entrenched camps at the state Capitol don’t always reflect more nuanced views found across the three Grand Divisions of the state.
In McCall’s living room, 50 women from the greater Chattanooga area gathered an intermingling of two groups, one from McCall’s circle of retirees and doting grandmothers and one cohort of young professionals and mothers.
McCall’s group had organically coalesced amid the aftershocks of Covenant, when she exchanged a shell-shocked look with a friend in the local grocery store, both thinking of their own young grandchildren walking into their classrooms every day.
“We felt, as grandmothers, we couldn’t live with ourselves if we didn’t participate in some way,” McCall, a retired educator, said. “I’m mad at myself for not having participated more before.”
For McCall and her husband John, an educator and veteran, gun violence has emerged as a driving political issue. John McCall considers himself a lifelong Republican, but he isn’t sure he can continue to back a party resistant to substantive gun reform as firearm threats to children chart a troubling rise.
“We are so disappointed and can’t believe that this is happening,” McCall said.
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‘No simple answers’
The issue has ignited public opinion across Tennessee ahead of lawmakers’ return to the Capitol. Some, like 66-year-old Mickey White in West Tennessee, wanted lawmakers to drop the idea of a special session altogether, arguing there are enough gun laws on the books that should simply be enforced.
“Every time there’s a tragic shooting, all this comes up,” White said. “It should wait until January when they convene. It’s tragic, but so is messing with the Constitution.”
But a swath of public polling suggests most Tennesseans would be on board with additional action and feel gun reform can be balanced with constitutional rights.
In May, a Vanderbilt University poll found an “actionable” consensus between Tennesseans who identify as Democrats, moderate Republicans, and Trump-aligned Republicans, the majority of which supported a form of a red flag law. The poll also reflected a huge shift in how important people think the gun regulation policy is, as it had been ranked at the bottom of the list in a decade’s worth of polling, but rose to the top three issues cited following Covenant.
Since May, nearly 20,000 people have written to Lee’s office to share their opinions on the issue, with a large majority in favor of some additional gun regulations, ranging from tightened background checks to a red flag law to increased restrictions on automatic weapons.
As Anthony Roberson, a veteran and a former law enforcement officer in Cheatham County, has watched the policy debate play out, he sees “a tendency on either side to oversimplify things.” Roberson supports some increased firearm restrictions, pointing to his rigorous military training and fear as former law enforcement that public weaponry can now outmatch police.
“If the Covenant shooter had a shotgun or pistol, they could still injure or kill, but would it have been as horrendous? Would there have been as many rounds fired?” Roberson wonders. “Semi-automatics are for law enforcement and military. That’s what they’re for. You don’t need a semi-automatic to hunt deer, you don’t need a semi-automatic to defend your house.”
In Knoxville, businessman George Wallace acknowledges there are “no simple” answers to gun violence, but he thinks it’s reasonable for lawmakers to consider raising the minimum age to purchase to 21, a red flag law, and lengthening waiting periods for people buying guns.
“There’s no one thing we can do. There’s no guarantee any of it will have any impact, and I understand that. It’s not going to solve it. But I think we owe it to the community to take some action as opposed to no action,” Wallace, a self-described gun enthusiast, said. “It’s unconscionable that we don’t have restrictions on people who are a danger to themselves or others.”
Wallace’s hopes are not particularly high for the special session. A lifelong Republican, Wallace thinks lawmakers are “afraid to step outside the boundaries of a party that says we’re staunchly about Second Amendment rights” amid intensifying pressure over the summer from conservative groups. But he thinks there is broader consensus among Tennesseans than the dynamics in the General Assembly would suggest.
“People like me don’t call into radio shows,” Wallace said. “There are people like me, plenty of people, who feel the very same way and have the same ideals I do, that vote the ideals I do, that don’t speak up.”
Impact of gun violence
Shaundelle Brooks hasn’t stopped speaking up since her son, Akilah DaSilva, was killed in the Waffle House mass shooting in 2018. For Brooks, the ongoing Tennessee debate is not a theoretical exercise, but an everyday concern that weighs at the heart of her family.
“You think it will never happen to you until it does,” Brooks said. “We must act now and stop guns from getting into the wrong hands. Some of our lawmakers tell us there is nothing they can do. But that’s factually incorrect. They choose to do nothing when there are many things we can do.”
Brooks is critical of a trend of loosening gun regulations in Tennessee in recent years. And after weathering the tragedy of losing DaSilva, Brooks was struck with another blow this summer when her oldest son Abede was shot and injured at a Nashville show after someone opened fire outside of a venue.
“We are on track for another year wrought with tragedy and lives lost that could have been saved if guns were not in the wrong hands,” Brooks said.
But personal experiences with firearms vary across the state. Tracie Hirschler’s husband was shot by a coworker on a job site, an attack he survived. The incident always makes the Rutherford County resident wonder what would have been different if he had a gun to defend himself.
Hirschler said she opposes “most” gun reform legislation and thinks lawmakers should prioritize putting armed guards or maybe retired military in schools as an answer to school shootings. In regards to regulations, Hirschler added that she would support the strict restriction of revolvers in homes with children but is opposed to safe storage laws.
“I don’t want fear to cause people to lose their gun rights. For gun advocates, that’s a big thing. Fear can make you make decisions that take away rights,” Hirschler said.
After hearing the details of Lee’s initial pitch for an extreme risk law – where a judge in a full court hearing could determine whether or not someone is a danger to themselves or others – Hirschler said she has concerns about “gray areas” around defining mental illness but could be open to it.
‘Clearly a public health crisis’
A Chattanooga doctor thinks more should be done to expose Tennesseans without firsthand experience to the realities of certain types of firearms.
Dr. Dave Bhattacharya is the medical director for pediatric trauma for a 150-mile radius in East Tennessee and is concerned about controlling access to semi-automatic weapons. He’s treated gunshot victims this year who have been shot by handguns and a shotgun – all survived and were able to return home. Assault-style weapons, meanwhile, can cause exponentially more damage, obliterating children’s bodies.
“We’re not taking away everybody’s guns, but I do think controlling who has access to high-powered weapons is really important,” Bhattacharya said.
New data released by the Tennessee Department of Health in August revealed guns are the leading non-medical killer of Tennessee’s children, an alarming trend that rises and outpaces the national average of firearm fatalities for people under 17.
“I think this is clearly a public health crisis,” Bhattachyra said.
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Groups prep for fast, furious week at state Capitol
Todd Cruse is hopeful it is a public health crisis the public is beginning to understand.
Cruse is chairman of Voices for a Safer Tennessee, a grassroots advocacy group formed in the wake of Covenant to advocate for legislative change on gun safety. The group released its own poll, commissioned from a conservative polling firm, that showed similar bipartisan support for reform as seen in other polls.
“It’s a pretty big message I think the general population is beginning to pay attention to,” Cruse said of the polling data and public health statistics.
Among several other groups, Voices has crisscrossed Tennessee in the months since Covenant, amassing 20,000 supporters with a presence in 94 of Tennessee’s 95 counties.
Covenant-connected groups such as the Covenant Family Action Fund have called for more explicit gun reform legislation, such as an extreme risk or temporary transfer law, which Lee ultimately didn’t deliver in his administrative bill package for the special session.
But the groups say they’re encouraged Lee committed to calling the session, even as conservative groups argued the governor should back away from the session because Republican constituencies weren’t interested.
It’s a marathon, not a sprint, advocates say as they gear up for Monday rallies and plan to follow legislation through an expedited and condensed legislative process over the next week.
On Monday, McCall and her Chattanooga cohort will board a charter bus and pile into cars for a convoy into Nashville. They’ll attend a legislative information session held by Voices, and some will sit down for a private meeting with an area representative. Some will walk the halls of their state Capitol for the first time.
Though brand new to the legislative process, McCall realizes a weeklong special session won’t lead to most of the solutions proposed in her living room last month. But she hopes their presence will count because they’ll be back.
“This is just the beginning,” she said.