NASHVILLE — Political shock waves from the shooting deaths of three children and three employees at a church-run school Monday in Nashville quickly hit the Tennessee Capitol as Democrats criticized the relaxation of state firearms laws by Gov. Bill Lee and his fellow Republicans.
"The blood of these children is on my colleagues' hands," Senate Democratic Caucus Chairwoman London Lamar of Memphis told state Capitol reporters at a news conference. "They have contributed to the increase of gun violence in this state. We have one of the highest rates of gun violence in the country.
"And now we just added seven more people to that number," Lamar said, including the 28-year-old shooter who Metro Nashville police say fatally shot three 9-nine-year-olds as well as the headmistress, a substitute teacher and a custodian at Covenant School in the Green Hills section of Nashville. "I'm sick of y'all's 'prayers.'"
Metro Nashville Police Chief John Drake told reporters that responding officers engaged the attacker, identified as Audrey Hale, a former student at the school.
Republicans showed little interest in discussing either existing law or pending legislation that includes a bill lowering the age for Tennesseans to carry firearms from 21 to 18. The House version of the measure, House Bill 1005, also contains a provision allowing Tennesseans to carry long guns, including semi-automatic firearms.
Senators, however, stripped the long-gun provision from the bill last week in the Judiciary Committee.
"Right now, I hate it for those families, that poor mom, that poor dad that doesn't have a child to come home with them tonight. It's unfortunate," Rep. Rusty Grills, R-Newbern, the House sponsor of the lower chamber version that includes long guns, told reporters late Monday afternoon at the Capitol. "As far as legislation, we're not talking about legislation right now. We're worried about those families and praying for them."
Lt. Gov. Randy McNally, the Republican Senate speaker, likewise demurred.
"Right now, we're thinking about the families, the schools, the administrators," he told reporters at the state Capitol Monday as he entered an elevator.
The bill's Senate sponsor, John Stevens, R-Huntingdon, refused to discuss the legislation with reporters.
"Nope, I'm not going to politicize it, guys," Stevens said as he left the Senate chamber. "My bills have nothing to do with this."
Also Monday, Tennessee Attorney General Jonathan Skrmetti and California-based gun-rights Firearms Policy Coalition group settled a 2021 federal lawsuit that the gun-rights group filed challenging the state's exclusion of most 18- to 20-year-olds from carrying handguns, according to a U.S. District Court filing Monday in Knoxville.
The agreed order was signed Monday by U.S. District Court Judge Katherine A. Crytzer. In asking for Crytzer's sign-off, Skrmetti and the Firearms Policy Coalition said in the order it was "solely for the purpose" of retaining her jurisdiction to enforce its terms if the state doesn't stand by the agreement.
"Yes, the lawsuit in East Tennessee has been resolved based upon the language in the original order," said Tennessee Firearms Association Executive John Harris in a text to the Chattanooga Times Free Press on Tuesday morning. "However it was rewritten in the context of a settlement agreement and resubmitted to the court.
"Tennessee is now under a prohibition from enforcing any restrictions on the 18- to 20-year-olds," Harris added.
On Monday, Sen. Bo Watson, R-Hixson, had no comment on the school massacre.
"I think we need to process today," Watson told the Times Free Press during a brief in-person interview at the Capitol. "Let today be today, one day at a time. It's certainly a tragic, tragic event."
Rep. Yusuf Hakeem, D-Chattanooga, said the shooting illustrates the lack of protective guardrails in the state.
"My heart goes out to the families of those who are directly affected by this," Hakeem said in an interview, later adding, "essentially, here in the state of Tennessee now, we have no rules and guidelines. We've taken away the background checks. I think there's discussion of 16-year-olds being able to acquire guns. I mean, it's as though we're inviting this."
During Monday's House session, Rep. Bo Mitchell, D-Nashville, told the chamber he rushed to the Covenant School, which is attended by the daughter of his legislative assistant. His assistant's daughter was unharmed, Mitchell said. But he said the assistant had to tell her daughter of the deaths.
"We don't need an assault rifle," Mitchell told Republicans. "So please don't say you're 'pro-life.'"
As he continued to talk, House Speaker Cameron Sexton, R-Crossville, called him out of order, smacked his gavel and temporarily turned off the still-talking Mitchell's microphone, saying Mitchell was violating standards of the "welcoming and honoring" speaking time.
"I'll tell you one thing," Mitchell said loudly. "There's six people today I can't welcome and honor anymore into this hallowed house. Y'all just think about those six people and think if your guns are worth it."
Sexton later told the Times Free Press his action was justified.
"I don't think you use today before the families have even had time to grieve to start putting politics out there. And it's unfortunate that's the way they want to go," Sexton said.
Sen. Charlane Oliver, D-Nashville, who joined in Democrats' news conference, noted the children were all 9 years old.
"These kids deserved better," Oliver said. "I'm angry to sit here and look at my colleagues who run away from the problem, who are cowards. Cowards sat there ... not even a moment of silence. How dare them. This is not OK. The only thing left to do is legislative action. Not tweet, not a prayer, not thoughts."