NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Hundreds of people protested at the Tennessee Capitol on Thursday in favor of tighter gun controls, haranguing the Republican-led Legislature to take action following this week's mass shooting at a Christian school in Nashville in which three children and three adults were killed.
Chants of “Save our children!” echoed noisily in the hallways between the state Senate and House chambers, with protesters setting up shop inside and outside the Capitol. Some silently filled the Senate chamber's gallery, including children who held signs reading “I'm nine” — a reference to the age of the three kids who died in Monday's attack at The Covenant School. Most protesters were removed from the gallery after some began yelling down at the lawmakers, “Children are dead!”
The rally followed a Wednesday night candlelight vigil in Nashville where Republican lawmakers stood alongside first lady Jill Biden, Democratic lawmakers and musicians including Sheryl Crow, who has called for stricter gun controls since the attack.
The vigil was somber and at times tearful, as speaker after speaker read the victims' names and offered condolences to their loved ones but refrained from any statement that could be seen as political. The family of Mike Hill, a 61-year-old custodian who was among those killed, was in attendance, including his seven children.
“Just two days ago was our city’s worst day,” Mayor John Cooper said. “I so wish we weren’t here, but we need to be here.”
In attendance was Shaundelle Brooks, whose 23-year-old son, Akilah Dasilva, was among the four people killed in a 2018 shooting at a Nashville Waffle House. Brooks said she went to the vigil to support the families of those killed at the school.
“I know what it’s like to be a parent — what it feels like, like you’re drowning and can’t move, and that weakness and that hole that comes in your stomach,” she said.
Police have said a 28-year-old former student, whom they identified as Audrey Hale, drove up to the school on Monday morning, shot out the glass doors, entered and began firing indiscriminately. Police later fatally shot Hale.
Among those killed were the three 9-year-old students, Evelyn Dieckhaus, Hallie Scruggs and William Kinney; Katherine Koonce, 60, the head of the school; substitute teacher Cynthia Peak, 61; and Hill.
Authorities haven't determined the shooter’s motive, but Metropolitan Nashville Police Chief John Drake has said the assailant did not target specific victims and had “some resentment for having to go to that school.”
Drake said the shooter had drawn a detailed map of the school, including potential entry points, and conducted surveillance of the building before carrying out the attack. Drake also said Hale left behind writings that the chief referred to as a “manifesto,” but authorities haven't released the writings to the public.
Absent from the Wednesday vigil was Tennessee Republican Gov. Bill Lee, who has been an advocate for less restrictive gun laws along with greater school security and once intimated that prayer could protect Tennessee from school shootings and other things.
Lee issued a video statement Tuesday saying that Peak was a close friend of his wife, Maria, and that the two had been planning to meet for dinner on Monday.
“Maria woke up this morning without one of her best friends,” Lee said in a video statement, adding that his wife once taught with Peak and Koonce. The women, he said, “have been family friends for decades.”
Lee has avoided public appearances this week and has not proposed any possible steps his administration might take in response to the school shooting.
As with similar responses to gun violence, the state's Republican leaders have avoided calling for tighter gun restrictions and instead have thrown their support behind adding more school security measures.
In a letter to Lee, Republican Lt. Gov. Randy McNally called for securing windows and glass in school buildings, adding magnetic locks on doors, modernizing camera systems, and increasing armed guards.
“While these changes would come with a cost, I believe it is important for us to have a conversation about how to increase and modernize security at schools in Tennessee,” McNally wrote.
Meanwhile, Tennessee’s U.S. senators, Republicans Marsha Blackburn and Bill Hagerty, were pushing for legislation that would create a $900 million grant program to “harden” schools and hire safety officers.
Blackburn and Hagerty said Thursday that they would introduce the SAFE School Act, which would help public and private schools train military veterans and former law enforcement officers to provide security. They said the grants could also be used to bolster physical security measures. Blackburn introduced similar legislation in the last Congress, but it failed to gain support.
“No parent should have to endure what these families are experiencing,” Blackburn said in a statement. “By providing these critical funds, we can help protect our precious children and secure our schools.”
Police have said Hale was under a doctor’s care for an undisclosed “emotional disorder.” However, authorities haven't disclosed a link between that care and the shooting. Police also said Hale was not on their radar before the attack.
Social media accounts and other sources indicate that the shooter identified as a man and might have recently begun using the first name Aiden. Police have said Hale “was assigned female at birth” but used masculine pronouns on a social media profile, however police have continued to use female pronouns and the name Audrey to describe Hale.