“No Significant Action Taken on TN Gun Laws” read the headline of The Tennessean on Wednesday, the day after the Tennessee General Assembly ended a special legislative session on gun safety. To call that headline an understatement is itself an understatement.
Mary Joyce, whose daughter attends the Covenant School, where three third graders and three staff members were murdered in a shooting on March 27, was much more direct.
“My daughter was hunted at her school,” Ms. Joyce said, fighting tears. “She now understands what it feels like to be shot at. Since then, every single day she worries if it will be her last because it almost was. As a mother, I’m going to have to look at my 9-year-old in the eye and tell her nothing. Our elected representatives have done nothing. Our state has done nothing to make you safer or to prevent this from happening again and again and again and again.”
Ms. Joyce’s organization, the nonprofit Covenant Families Action Fund, is one of the reasons I had such high hopes for Tennessee’s special legislative session to address gun violence. To say I was wrong in harboring such hopes is also an understatement. During the special session, which cost Tennessee taxpayers $58,000 a day, Republicans passed no legislation that would have any significant effect on gun violence in the state. None at all.
Instead of passing the kinds of gun reforms Tennesseans overwhelmingly support, Republicans squabbled among themselves.
Instead of passing a red-flag law to keep guns out of the hands of dangerous people, they expelled weeping mothers from committee rooms and House galleries, and they silenced Representative Justin Jones, who had just been re-elected after Republicans voted in April to expel him from the legislature itself.
Instead of passing a law preventing civilians from carrying weapons of war, they enacted a rule prohibiting spectators from carrying small signs into meetings. Before a Davidson County Chancery Court judge blocked the rule, gun-sense advocates took to writing messages on their own bodies or projecting them from phone screens.
Through it all, spectators got a close-hand look at how indifferent Republican legislators truly are to their own constituents’ concerns.
“This week, the Tennessee General Assembly gave me a lesson on the white patriarchy,” wrote Maryam Abolfazli, founder of the nonprofit Rise & Shine Tennessee, in an opinion piece for Tennessee Lookout. “I had not understood the term in a meaningful way until this week, until I could feel it viscerally in the silencing of our dissent, in the ignoring of our presence, and our silent and present plea for gun safety — in the day-in and day-out legislating despite our desperation.
“We were shushed, not just our voices, but our deepest, most human request: Please save my child.”
Last spring, Republicans inadvertently turned the Tennessee Three — Democratic Representatives Justin J. Pearson and Gloria Johnson, in addition to Mr. Jones — into beloved national political figures with formidable fund-raising power. In ignoring their constituents’ powerful pleas to keep children safe, Republicans may have just mobilized an army of furious gun-reform advocates in advance of next year’s election. An army that cannot be ignored.
There’s precedent for converting Republicans to reason, or at least self-interest, even in blood-red Tennessee. Republican legislators cheered when Gov. Bill Lee announced in his 2022 State of the State address that he had asked Hillsdale College, a private Christian institution, to open 50 charter schools featuring a hyper-conservative curriculum designed to create “informed patriots.” A few months later, NewsChannel 5 aired video of Hillsdale’s president making extremely disparaging comments about public schoolteachers, and Republican legislators distanced themselves from the governor’s plan faster than you can say “politically expedient.”
They ought to have remembered all that before hundreds of Tennessee mothers, terrified into political activism, came to them asking for modest gun reforms. As a Nashville Scene columnist, Betsy Phillips, points out, “A very basic rule of politics is that you don’t go to war against your own voters if you want to stay in office.”
Members of the Covenant Families Action Fund already have their eye on future elections. “We need legislators on both sides of the aisle to be able to have respectful, thoughtful debate regarding potential solutions to end gun violence,” a Covenant parent, Sarah Shoop Neumann, said at a news conference after the close of the do-nothing special session. “Those who are not of this mind-set do not deserve a seat in the House or the Senate, and we will work toward ensuring every one of those seats is replaced by someone who has a true desire to listen to their constituents over firearm association lobbyists.”
It’s common among liberals to hope that some issue will finally make the scales fall from conservative eyes. Surely something will make them see that they are voting against their own economic self-interest. Surely something will make them realize that their leaders have been lying to them.
But that’s a reductive understanding of political identity, and I have given up hoping it’s ever going to happen on a scale that would turn a red state blue. I still have hope, however, that fully engaged conservative voters can make their elected officials understand that far-right ideologies have no place in actual governance.
Americans, whether they own a gun or don’t, want guns kept out of the hands of dangerous and unstable people. Americans, whether they vote for Republicans or Democrats, don’t want children to be blasted into bits at their school desks. As we have lately learned here in Tennessee, that’s a lot of common ground.
Already a former U.S. senator, Bill Frist, is publicly supporting the nonpartisan gun-sense advocacy nonprofit Voices for a Safer Tennessee. And down at the Capitol several Covenant parents made a point of thanking Representative Jones for his advocacy. “Y’all mean a lot to us,” one of them said. “I know I’m a Republican, but you guys stood up for us. This is not a partisan issue.”
I was wrong to believe that meaningful gun reform could ever emerge from Tennessee’s special legislative session, and I might well be wrong in remaining hopeful now. I would put all my money on those weeping mothers down at the Tennessee Capitol anyway.
They are fighting for their children’s lives, for all children’s lives. And politicians beholden to the gun lobby can’t hide from them anymore.
Margaret Renkl, a contributing Opinion writer, is the author of the books “Graceland, at Last” and “Late Migrations.” Her next book, “The Comfort of Crows: A Backyard Year,” will be published in October.
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