Tennessee Republicans Unmoved by Growing Calls for Gun Reform

A mass shooting at a Christian elementary school in March killed six. Since then, 188 adults and 24 children have died from guns in Tennessee.

NASHVILLE, Tenn. ­– Tennessee voters want gun reform but the Republicans who control things here aren’t listening. The Special Session of the Tennessee Legislature called by Governor Bill Lee to address gun violence ended this week with little to show for it.

“I think we’ve spent a lot of money and not passed any meaningful gun safety legislation,” said Jennifer Watson, president of the National Women’s Political Caucus of Tennessee.

Kelly Nowers is executive director of a local group, Advocates for Women and Kids’ Equity (AWAKE). She and 60 volunteers spent a day meeting with lawmakers. “I feel exhausted and disappointed,” Nowers said.

“They just completely ignored us, they ignore the data. They already have their minds made up when we talk to them,” said Kathy Barnett. She’s local but Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America is a national group with chapters in every state.

Even before the session began, Republican leaders signaled they had no intention of passing any gun reform measures. On the session’s first legislative day, the Senate Judiciary Committee tabled 52 of 55 bills that are dead until at least January 2024. Lee had called for a law to keep guns out of the hands of the mentally ill but lawmakers didn’t enact one.

The Republican super majority played whack-a-mole with Democratic gun control measures in Senate and House committee meetings and none survived to a floor vote. The upper house passed three bills of little note and the estimated $232,000 price tag for what turned out to be a less-than-special session was a slap to the Governor’s face and hundreds of mothers who flooded the Capitol hoping to see change. They didn’t get it.

One bill would have let people with enhanced gun permits enter schools but it failed to advance after a contentious 4-hour meeting of the House Civil Justice Committee ended in a tie vote. Republicans tried to shut down debate before parents from Covenant School could testify. Parents vehemently opposed two bills that would have allowed more guns in schools. Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee’s administration already budgeted $140 million to put an armed guard in all Tennessee public schools this year.

You can legally carry a concealed handgun in public in all 50 states. The majority of states require a person to have a permit to carry a loaded, concealed handgun in public but Tennessee is not one of them. The legislature passed a permitless carry law in 2021. It is effectively a “constitutional carry” law for handguns but does not apply to shotguns or rifles.

Why Governor Lee called Special Session

Three adults and three children were shot dead at The Covenant School March 27. Covenant is a parochial elementary school located in Nashville’s upscale Green Hills neighborhood. The mass shooting galvanized thousands of people who marched to the statehouse demanding gun control but the Tennessee General Assembly ended its 2023 legislative session April 21 without taking any action. On May 8, the Governor called for a special session. His wife, Maria Lee, knows two moms whose kids go to Covenant.

It was hot and muggy in Nashville August 21 when the special session began. Senate Republicans really didn’t want to be there.

“They’re on a vengeful roll,” said Carol Buckley Frazier. She’s also with Moms Demand Action. “We’ve been around since Sandy Hook,” Frazier said. Sandy Hook is the name of the elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut, where 28 people died in a mass shooting there in 2012.

Frazier says that her group advocates for common sense gun legislation. “Things we already know work,” she said, and noted the group is not anti-gun, just anti-assault rifles. They support background checks on people who want to buy a gun and they want loopholes in the system closed.

“There’s is a contingent in this state and other states who are into constitutional carry which means ‘any gun, anywhere, anyone, any place’ and that is their ideology. They’ve matched guns and God together as if it’s their God-given right to have a gun, so they think that means any gun,” Frazier said.

She noted that when the Second Amendment was written, automatic rifles like the AR-15 didn’t exist. “Who wouldn’t want to make sure that people cannot have a military style weapon with a high capacity magazine that can kill dozens of people in seconds as a civilian firearm? Who wouldn’t want to ban that?”

Although ten states have banned assault rifles, the Republican super majority in Tennessee doesn’t want to.

The Tennessee Three

The killings at Covenant school ignited daily protests outside the Capitol, which didn’t move the Republicans to take up gun control measures, so three Democratic Representatives tried protesting from inside the House chamber. An indignant Cameron Sexton, Speaker of the House, quickly had them removed.

Two of the renegade reps, Justin Jones and Justin Pearson, were expelled. The third representative, Gloria Johnson, narrowly escaped their fate by one vote.

The incident made national headlines. President Biden invited ‘The Tennessee Three” to the White House and they played it for all it was worth. Much to the chagrin of Tennessee’s Super-Red Republicans, both Jones and Pearson were quickly reelected to their posts, while Johnson, a retired schoolteacher from Knoxville, is considering a run for the U.S. Senate.

Republicans Clamp Down on Dissent

When the special session began Monday, House Republicans passed new rules penalizing disruptive lawmakers and banning signs inside the Capitol and in legislative hearing rooms.

On Tuesday, the committee rooms were filled with women holding signs. After some clapping from the public gallery, Civil Justice Subcommittee Chair Lowell Russell ordered state troopers to clear the room. Some of the ejected mothers left the hearing room in tears. One Covenant School mom, Sarah Shoop Neumann, was later allowed back in to testify.

The high-handed treatment was just how Republicans dealt with the Tennessee Three and it didn’t sit well with the ACLU, which immediately sued over the new rules, eventually getting an injunction vacating them. The next day women came back with their signs, though some of the moms had already found a workaround by putting messages on their phones that they held aloft.

Up in the Senate chamber balcony, the women didn’t yell or clap but they snapped their fingers filling the loft with a trilling like insects on a hot summer day. Whether the senators below could hear it or not, it signaled the Moms’ reaction to the proceedings. When the session ended, spectators hoisted a banner that said “No Gun Reform, No Peace” and chanted ‘You’ve Done Nothing! You’ve Done Nothing!” as they filed out of the chamber.

EMS contributor Peter White lives in Tennessee, from where he provides occasional missives chronicling life in the Red States.