Parent group that formed after Covenant shooting pushes for gun reform during Chattanooga-area visit

Staff photo by Matt Hamilton / Katy Dieckhaus, mother of 9-year-old Evelyn Dieckhaus, who was killed in The Covenant School shooting in Nashville on March 27, speaks during a meeting with the Chattanooga Times Free Press editorial board on Wednesday.
Staff photo by Matt Hamilton / Katy Dieckhaus, mother of 9-year-old Evelyn Dieckhaus, who was killed in The Covenant School shooting in Nashville on March 27, speaks during a meeting with the Chattanooga Times Free Press editorial board on Wednesday.

At the Church of the Good Shepherd in Lookout Mountain on Wednesday, members of Voices for a Safer Tennessee pitched what they think are three pragmatic solutions to gun violence: background checks for all firearm purchases, required secure firearm storage in vehicles and a law allowing law enforcement to temporarily remove firearms from an individual found by a judge to clearly present an imminent risk of danger.

The community conversation was one of several the group has hosted at churches across the state. It's part of the group's effort — in a Republican-controlled state where about half the population owns a gun — to meet people where they are.

The nonpartisan coalition was formed by parents after the March 27 shooting at The Covenant School, a private Christian elementary school in Nashville.

Katy Dieckhaus, whose daughter, Evelyn, was one of three 9-year-olds killed in the Covenant shooting, said the hope is to shift views in order to decrease the number of families affected by all types of gun violence, not just school shootings.


"We don't want kids and parents to continue to experience this," she said during a meeting with the Chattanooga Times Free Press. "It's life altering and devastating, gut wrenching."

Voices for a Safer Tennessee says it has grown from 80 to 30,000 members in recent months, and its advisory board includes Tennessee figures like former U.S. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist and singer-songwriter Amy Grant.

(READ MORE: Bus tour rallies Chattanoogans for gun reforms ahead of special session)

The growth in the number of people wanting to engage in conversations about gun safety, as well as polling done by the organization that shows the majority of likely Republican primary voters support the group's three key goals, make Todd Cruse, the organization's chair, optimistic there's a chance at passing those laws.

A May poll by Vanderbilt University found 72% of registered Tennessee voters support red flag laws, which allow the removal of guns from people deemed dangerous by a judge. In addition, 62% support mandated safe firearm storage and 82% support Gov. Bill Lee's executive order strengthening background checks for gun buyers.

In conversations with Tennessee lawmakers, Cruse said the most common ground exists when speaking about background checks. There's some pushback on whether gun owners should be penalized if their firearm is stolen, he said, adding that it's a step in the right direction that the state dedicated $1.1 million to an ad campaign on gun safety during the special legislative session in August.

Memphis and Chattanooga, respectively, had the two highest rates of guns stolen from cars in the nation, according to a study from New York-based nonprofit Everytown for Gun Safety earlier this year.

But the third solution — which advocates call a temporary transfer law rather than a red flag law — is more contentious with lawmakers, who say it's a "slippery slope" to infringe on gun rights in any way, even if it's limited, the advocacy group said.

In August, Republican lawmakers refused to consider Lee's proposal that would allow the courts to remove firearms from those considered a danger to themselves or others. His law was branded a red flag law, even though he tried to label it an extreme risk temporary order of protection proposal.

Still, Cruse doesn't think the idea of passing what he calls a temporary transfer law is dead. The state requires those under domestic violence protective orders to surrender their guns, he said, so there's already a way to do that.

"I think it's important that we lead with the word temporary," he said. "We're not asking to create something new."

(Covenant shooting victim's mom challenges lawmakers in gun reform ad: 'What's more important?')

Dieckhaus said she struggles sometimes hearing people say it may take years for change to happen.

"Haven't we already been just dealing with tragedy after tragedy? It's a cycle," she said. "But there's so many people that really want to see a change."

The coalition acknowledges it'll take time, and Dieckhaus said she isn't going anywhere.

"It may not be this generation that we are seeing today in the statehouse, but when you have 18-year-olds tell us at lunch that the best part about getting out of school is no longer having to worry about being shot, these laws will change eventually because the next generation is tired of it," Cruse said. "So the question is: Can we help springboard this discussion and get it done sooner rather than later so that tragedies don't happen?"

Contact Shannon Coan at scoan@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6396.

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