From grief to action in Nashville, protesters demand change at the state capitol

By: - March 30, 2023 5:08 pm

A crowd of teenagers hold signs in the Tennessee Capitol on Thursday as part of a rally to urge lawmakers to take up gun safety laws. (Photo by John Partipilo)

Less than 16 hours after a muted vigil, a grieving city turned to protest as crowds took to the halls of the Tennessee Capitol Thursday, demanding action on gun violence after six were killed at the Covenant School, marking Nashville’s third mass shooting since 2017.

Hundreds gathered outside Nashville’s city government building Wednesday evening to honor the lives of 9-year-old students Evelyn Dieckhaus, Hallie Scruggs and William Kinney; 61-year-old substitute teacher Cynthia Peak; 61-year-old custodian Mike Hill; and 60-year-old Covenant Head of School Katherine Koonce.

“I so wish we did not need to be here,” Nashville Mayor John Cooper told the mourning crowd, which included Sens. Marsha Blackburn and Bill Hagerty and First Lady Jill Biden, “but we need to be here, together, as a community.”

The grief became dissatisfaction, with more than a thousand protesters flooding the halls of Tennessee’s state government as lawmakers gathered for their Thursday floor sessions..

“They are cowards,” Janet Myaus, 61, said after she and other protesters were kicked out of the Tennessee Senate gallery. “Is anybody going to do anything? Or are we just going allow weapons of war on the streets?”

Chants of “Shame on you,” and “No justice, no peace,” rang in the background as lawmakers attempted to conduct their regular state business, debating dozens of bills like stopping payroll deductions for teacher unions and Gov. Bill Lee’s $3 billion transportation plan.

“We need them to act,” said Rep. Justin Jones, D-Nashville, to the crowd in reference to Republican lawmakers who hold a supermajority in the state House and Senate. “We need to hold them accountable.”

Tempers were high all morning long — before the session began.

Jones and House Majority Leader William Lamberth, R-Portland, yelled at each other as Jones held a sign demanding action on gun violence in Lamberth’s face. Members from both sides of the aisle stepped in to calm the two.

“I made it clear to him that behavior is not acceptable in this chamber,” Lamberth said. “If you’re a citizen and you want to come up here and yell at the top of your lungs, it is free country, you can do so. You can’t do so in this this chamber.”

Protesters then flooded the House and Senate public viewing areas. In the Senate, Lt. Gov. Randy McNally, R-Oak Ridge, cleared the public area after protesters refused to stop chanting “Children are dead, and you don’t care.”

The House was more chaotic. Jones, joined by Reps. Gloria Johnson, D-Knoxville, and Justin Pearson, D-Memphis, took over the podium with a megaphone during a recess.

House Minority Leader Karen Camper, D-Memphis, angrily yelled at the trio, forcing them off the floor.

“When our collegues got in the well to make good trouble temperatures were raging,” Camper said. “My job as the leader is to tamp that down so they don’t get out of hand.”

Democrat and Republican leaders briefly huddled to discuss sanctions against the three.

House Speaker Cameron Sexton said some action will be taken against those representatives in the coming days.

“Something like that has never happened before,” Sexton said.

The initial shock, grief and unity quickly turned into a political debate in Nashville.

State Republicans have spent years loosening Tennessee’s gun laws with no sign of letting up, saying the right to own, buy and carry weapons freely is an essential and secure right as an American citizen.

“Even if we had the most restrictive ban on weapons when you have someone who is willing to die and kill other people you cannot stop them,” Sexton said. “Unless you can determine very quickly what they are going to do.”

Before Monday’s shooting Nashville and the state were locked in a bitter battle over the city’s right to self-governance; the event likely exacerbated the divide even further.

Several Senate Republicans entered the chambers Thursday with headphones on in an attempt to block out the protesters; many Democrats joined and encouraged the protests.

Gov. Bill Lee released a video discussing the tragedy without saying the words “Nashville” or “gun” and, as of publishing, has not offered other comment or media availability. U.S. Rep. Tim Burchett, R-Knoxville, told reporters there was “nothing” Congress could do to stop gun violence.

Monday’s shooting showed how a city, tested by tornadoes, bombings, and pandemics, can react to tragedy. It displayed itself in the teachers and administrators who locked down the Covenant School with an action plan they’d likely been preparing since Newtown; in the police officers who responded immediately to take out the shooter; and in residents’ unity and funds raised.

Lawmakers will turn their attention to action next week. Lee is expected to release his amended budget proposal, which some are speculating could include additional funding for private school security grants.

Democrats offered several proposals, including a repeal of permitless carry, limit on cash transaction for firearms and the creation of red flag laws.

McNally also mentioned to reporters he was open to discussing red flag laws, which prevent someone who displays signs of being a threat to themselves or others from purchasing or possessing a gun.

Sen. Jeff Yarbro, D-Nashville, said he was encouraged by McNally’s words.

“Today needed to happen,” Yarbro said. “Now we’ll see if this frustration can be turned into legislative action.”

This story was produced by the Tennessee Lookout which is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus, including the Daily Montanan, supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity.

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Adam Friedman
Adam Friedman

Adam Friedman is a reporter with the Tennessee Lookout. He has a particular love for data and using numbers to explain all kinds of topics. If you have a story idea, he'd love to hear it. Email him at [email protected] or call him at 615-249-8509.