NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Parents of the children at the Covenant School, where three students and three school staff members were fatally shot in March, spoke of the horror they felt watching the Tennessee special session close with no significant gun legislation passed.
“Let me remind you. My daughter was hunted at her school,” Mary Joyce said in an eerily silent room, as journalists watched her contain her tears at a news conference following the ending of the special session on Tuesday.
“She hid from a woman with a high-capacity rifle in her third-grade classroom,” Joyce added. “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.”
The special session had initially been called by Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee in response to the Covenant School shooting. Despite the Republican governor’s attempt to convince GOP lawmakers to pass a gun control legislation, no significant changes were made to the state’s gun laws.
Large contingents of Covenant School families attended the nearly week and a half of legislative hearings leading up to Tuesday’s tumultuous proceedings. From chamber galleries to hallways and private offices, the families, wearing Covenant School red against the sea of state troopers and lawmakers — made their presence known, at times quietly holding signs and at times chanting with the gathered crowds.
“Today, we will go home and we’ll look at our children in the eyes — many of whom were sheltered from gunfire that tragic day on March 27,” Joyce said. “They will ask what our leaders have done over the past week and a half to protect them. As a mother, I’m going to have to look at my nine-year-old in the eye and tell her: nothing.”
‘I have been listening all summer!’
In a heated exchange Tuesday afternoon in the Capitol rotunda, Nashville attorney Johnny Ellis argued with Joyce after he thanked leaving lawmakers for “not passing any gun laws.”
Ellis, who later told The Tennessean that he is a Second Amendment supporter, told Joyce that “nobody listens to him” and his assertion that the solution to gun violence is arming more teachers.
Joyce, whose 9-year-old daughter was in a classroom during the March mass shooting and lost three of her classmates, began crying.
“I have been listening all summer!” she said.
Still, many families found some solace in how one bill they pushed back against failed. They had a heavy presence in a tense House Criminal Justice Committee when it considered HB 7064, a bill sponsored by Rep. Chris Todd that would have allowed more people to carry firearms onto school campuses.
The bill, which cleared the previous subcommittee hearings little opposition after demonstrators were removed from the room, failed after a tied vote.
Bills supported by parent groups fall short
Despite the constant presence of the parents, the vast majority of bills backed by the parents’ groups withered under the deal struck between the House and the Senate or never got introduced to begin with.
David Teague, a father of two children at the school, said at the Tuesday news conference that he’d “hoped for more.”
“Today is a difficult day,” he said, through tears. “A tremendous opportunity to make our children safer and create brighter tomorrows has been missed. And I am saddened for all Tennesseans — I’d hoped for more.”
The bills passed by the lawmakers were not enough, he said. But he wasn’t surprised.
“Today’s inaction by the legislature hurt — it pales in comparison to the pain of March 27th,” he said. “And the end of the day, though, this is only a little less than what we expected.”
‘Just the beginning’:How push for gun reform has spread across Tennessee ahead of special session
When asked if any lawmakers had made promises to the parents that went unfulfilled, the parents said there were none — because in their view, the lobbyists had spoken with lawmakers first.
“We did hear word that the day of the shooting, legislators were getting emails from gun manufacturers,” Sarah Shoop Neumann said. “I think it’s important to note that before we even reunited with our children, emails were going out essentially saying ‘remember your alliance.’”
The three parents — along with other organizations formed in the wake of the shooting — promised to continue their pressure on the legislature.
“We need legislators on both sides of the aisle to be able to have respectful, thoughtful debate regarding potential solutions to end gun violence,” Shoop Neumann said. “Those who are not of this mindset do not deserve a seat in the House or the Senate, and we will work towards ensuring every one of those seats is replaced by someone who has a true desire to listen to their constituents over firearm association lobbyists.
“We will be back in January.”