Covenant School parents hope for best in Tennessee Gov. Lee's special session on firearms, public safety

Children from The Covenant School, a private Christian school in Nashville, Tenn., hold hands as they are taken to a reunification site at the Woodmont Baptist Church after a shooting at their school, on March, 27. (AP Photo/Jonathan Mattise)
Children from The Covenant School, a private Christian school in Nashville, Tenn., hold hands as they are taken to a reunification site at the Woodmont Baptist Church after a shooting at their school, on March, 27. (AP Photo/Jonathan Mattise)

NASHVILLE — A group of parents advocating for new firearms-safety measures after the deadly March shooting at The Covenant School in Nashville say they're grateful Republican Gov. Bill Lee has formally called a special session for Tennessee legislators to address gun safety, mental health and related issues.

But they say they're not sure the session that begins Aug. 21 will be the end of their effort.

"Mental health and firearms safety is not an either/or debate when discussing how to keep our children safe from the threat of violence. It is a both/and conversation," David Teague, a Covenant parent and co-founder of the recently created Covenant Families for Brighter Tomorrows, told reporters Wednesday during a news conference at the state Capitol.

"We don't expect the special session to be the end of the debate on keeping our children safe from gun violence; it is just the next chapter," Teague said. "We will be back this January, the January after that and the January after that. When the final gavel falls to end this special session, it needs to be after our elected representatives have done the job they are elected and paid to do."

The Covenant Families for Brighter Tomorrows is one of two nonprofit groups created by Covenant parents concerned about gun violence. In March, a 28-year-old former student at the elementary school went on a shooting rampage, killing three 9-year children and three adults, one of them the head of the school.

Lee, a Republican, issued the call Tuesday following weeks of closed-door meetings with groups of lawmakers and others in the GOP-dominated General Assembly. Republican leaders, most of whom weren't happy about having a special session, agreed to it but wanted a heavy focus on mental health, violent juveniles and other issues that do not infringe on gun rights.

"We understand the frustration that some people have said that they don't feel that it has gone far enough," said Sarah Shoop Neumann, a Covenant parent and co-founder of Covenant Families for Brighter Tomorrows and the Covenant Families Action Fund, stressing the nonprofits are separate entities and don't speak on behalf of The Covenant School or Covenant Presbyterian Church.

"However," Neumann added, "after having over 50 meetings with legislators and from where those conversations started, we feel like it could have been a lot less."

Melissa Alexander, another Covenant parent and co-founder of Covenant Families for Brighter Tomorrows and the Covenant Families Action Fund, called Lee's action and GOP lawmakers' agreement to attend the session a "historic and positive step forward" for children and all Tennesseans.

"All eyes are going to be on Tennessee in the coming weeks," Alexander said. "Actions taken in the special session could well make our communities safer."

Most Tennesseans back efforts to fix the state's firearms background check system, she said, ensuring Tennessee state law is in line with federal gun laws and seeking ways to construct a more effective judicial process to temporarily remove firearms from troubled people in crisis and get them help.

And there is discussion of putting new dollars into mental health and state-run mental health institutes.

Another Covenant parent, Kramer Schmidt, urged lawmakers to "step up and meet the moment" to make Tennessee safer for children.

"As Tennesseans, we have to ask ourselves, what kind of state do we want to raise our children in?" Schmidt said. "A state that, in the aftermath of a mass shooting of children and educators and amidst soaring rates of gun violence, will sit idly by when the vast majority of Tennesseans are asking for real reform to firearm laws? Or a state that rises to the moment and takes action to keep firearms out of the hands of those who seek to do the most harm to our children and communities."

Most Republican lawmakers rejected Lee's initial call during the regular session to pass legislation allowing judges to remove firearms from people deemed dangerous to themselves or others.

Lee, who knew the head of The Covenant School who died in the attack, unsuccessfully argued his approach had more due process protections for gun owners than similar laws in 21 other states.

Those laws exclude the gun owner from the judicial proceeding, Lee said, adding that his approach would have allowed the gun owner to be present at the hearing.

His proposal was criticized as a red flag law.

Some Republican leaders are instead backing a proposal that focuses on the person, not the guns, allowing committals to a mental health facility. That is supported by House Speaker Cameron Sexton, R-Crossville, as well the Tennessee Firearms Association's head, John Harris.

House Majority Leader William Lamberth, R-Portland, on Wednesday released some of his proposals, including a measure strengthening a 2021 law that allows victims of violent crime to petition a court for a lifetime order of protection. Lamberth, a former prosecutor, said his bill extends that to lifetime protection for victims of aggravated stalking.

Another bill requires all public and private Tennessee schools modernize communications dealing with emergency preparedness and develop safety response procedures that distinguish whether an emergency is a fire, inclement weather or an active shooter situation.

Another bill requires courts to notify local law enforcement agencies when an individual is released from court-ordered emergency evaluation, treatment or care. It's intended to improve communication with agencies responsible for transporting individuals to a treatment facility following a judge's determination that the person was a risk to themselves or others.

"We have a moral obligation to support our most vulnerable citizens suffering from mental illness, especially those who pose a serious risk to themselves or others," Lamberth said. "This legislation creates a practical solution that will help law enforcement respond best to individuals in crisis when they're back home in their communities."

Contact Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com or 615-285-9480.