NASHVILLE — Parents of children at a Nashville Christian elementary school where a shooter killed three children and three adults March 27 are vowing to return to the Tennessee legislature next year.
They plan to advocate for gun-safety measures and safeguards after the Republican-dominated House and Senate took virtually no action this month during the special session on public safety called by Gov. Bill Lee.
"Our elected representatives have done nothing," said Mary Joyce, whose 9-year-old daughter attends The Covenant School, where the shooting by a 28-year-old former student armed with semi-automatic guns occurred. "Our state has done nothing to make you safer or to prevent this from happening again and again and again."
Her comments came as the governor's special session ended Tuesday with few if any actions parents and school staff actively supported passing.
"We can no longer afford to sit on the sidelines," said Joyce, who was accompanied by fellow Covenant parents Sarah Shoop Neumann and David Teague. "We have to get out and vote people into these seats that will listen to their constituents — and take action. Only 20% of people actually vote in state elections. So if you think your voice is being represented, it is not. Unless you decide to do something about it."
The shooting prompted Lee, a Republican and religious and social conservative who worked successfully during his first term to get a permitless handgun-carry law through the legislature, to call the special session.
What got done
Four of the governor's proposals passed both chambers, including an appropriations bill designating more than $100 million in public safety funding.
SB7088/HB7041: Requires the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation to submit a report on child and human trafficking crimes and trends in Tennessee by Dec. 1 and annually thereafter.
SB7086/HB7013: Requires reporting of accurate, complete and timely records from court clerks to the TBI within 72-hours and requires electronic submissions of dispositions and expungements to the TBI.
SB7085/HB7012: Directs the department of safety to provide free firearm locks to Tennessee residents upon request; requires department-approved handgun safety courses to contain instruction on the safe storage of firearms; exempts the retail sale of firearm safes and firearm safety devices from sales and use taxes beginning Nov. 1.
SB7089/HB7070: Appropriates $50 million in grant funding to mental health agencies, $30 million in school safety grants to public and private higher education institutions, $12.1 million in recruitment and retention bonuses for mental health professionals, $10 million additional funding for school safety grant fund, $4 million in funding for the mental health safety net, $3 million in funding for the behavioral health scholarship program, and $1.1 million to fund a public safety campaign for safe storage.
His call came after GOP lawmakers ignored his proposal during the regular session to pass a law allowing judges to take guns from people found to be dangerous — derided as a red flag law by conservative lawmakers.
Lee held closed-door meetings with lawmakers for weeks, with Republican leaders telling Lee his proposal wouldn't pass and they would not sponsor it. He still called the special session, including language allowing lawmakers to consider such a bill. But the governor did not promote it as part of his agenda.
Lee and his wife, Maria, a former school teacher, knew two of the adult Covenant victims.
"I believe our children should be able to go to school without fear of being murdered. I believe our children shouldn't have to worry at school whether or not they'll ever see their mommy or daddy again," Joyce told reporters. "I pray this never happens to your children. Because let me remind you, my daughter was hunted at her school, she hid from a woman with a high capacity rifle in her third grade classroom. She now understands what it feels like to be shot at. Let that sink in."
Tennessee Firearms Association Executive Director John Harris celebrated in an email Tuesday that the special session had ended with no "meaningful results — which is a victory."
But Harris cautioned in his email to supporters that Lee still wants a red flag law since he included that in his 18-item special session call.
Covenant parents supported several Republican and Democratic bills that sought, among other things, to close off release of autopsy reports of juveniles killed in violent crimes and introduce and establish a process for law enforcement to petition a Circuit Court for a temporary mental health order of protection for a person who poses a significant danger of causing personal injury to themselves or others by having a firearm. They were not adopted.
Although most of the bills introduced in the special session were not adopted, Lee contended during a visit to Chattanooga State Community College on Wednesday that progress was made in combating gun violence and discussions spurred by the weeklong session should lead to other improvements next year when the General Assembly returns to Nashville.
"It was a very difficult week, but it was also very hopeful, and that's because public safety is something that matters to every person," Lee said during his Chattanooga visit. "We made some substantive steps forward, and we made some major investments in mental health resources and in higher education safety grants."
The state has expanded its support for safer weapons storage, Lee said. His fellow Republicans batted down proposals to require safe storage, but the governor is making locks free and went along with excluding gun safes from the state sales tax.
The governor also pointed to lawmakers' approval of his legislation to close loopholes and delays in background checks on people purchasing firearms. The bill requires reporting of accurate, complete and timely records from court clerks to the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation within 72 hours and requires electronic submissions of dispositions and expungements to the TBI.
Lawmakers also approved Lee's legislation for the TBI to issue an annual report on human trafficking.
They were the only three bills that passed the legislature before it adjourned Tuesday. Senate Republican committee barons, among them Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, and Finance Chair Bo Watson, R-Hixson, were among six chairs insisting nothing further be done.
Lawmakers agreed to provide $81 million to pay for school safety upgrades, mental health and a public awareness campaign for safe gun storage.
After the session ended Tuesday, Lee called it a "process of continuous improvement."
Most dangerous states
The states with the most violent crimes per capita from 2020 to 2022 were:
2. New Mexico
8. South Carolina
9. South Dakota
Source: FBI crime statistics for 2022
During his Chattanooga visit, the governor didn't specify any legislation he will push in January when the General Assembly reconvenes, but he said the challenge of violent crime requires "a sense of urgency."
Last year, the state of Tennessee had the third highest rate of violent crime among the 50 states, behind only Alaska and New Mexico, according to FBI crime statistics.
"We're hopeful that this conversation will never stop because until every Tennessean lives in a safe neighborhood, we should be continuously focused on public safety," Lee said. "When you have rising crime as we have had and has been true for many states across the country, you've got to come together and say what can we agree upon that we can move forward with to improve that situation."
Lee expects many of the proposals introduced by lawmakers in the special session that didn't get acted upon will likely be brought up again, he said.
"I hope that we do because there were a lot of good ideas that were brought to the table, and given another opportunity, I think some of them will move along," he said.
"People want to live in a safe neighborhood, and there are lots of different opinions about how you get there," Lee said. "To me, it was incredibly important that we have the special session to elevate the discussion around public safety and to actually move the needle in that direction. It's something that matters, and it's a matter of urgency."
Lee got his bill allowing permitless handgun carry through in 2021, holding a ceremonial signing ceremony in Beretta USA's gun manufacturing plant in Gallatin. A Vanderbilt University poll found 59% of registered voters surveyed opposed it. Another Vanderbilt poll this year found 82% of Tennesseans support Lee's proposed executive order on gun background checks and three-quarters of voters support a red flag gun law.
The Tennessee Firearms Association, which opposes Lee's plan, cites another poll done by co/efficient. That survey found 84% of voters support another approach: Dangerous individuals should be removed from the community rather than taking their guns and leaving the individual in the community. That's the position for which most Republican lawmakers are advocating.
During this year's regular session, Lee signed a Republican-passed law providing additional liability protections for firearms and ammunition dealers, sellers and manufacturers.