Tennessee Democrats Pessimistic About Gun Safety Reform Prospects in Special Session After School Shooting

Gun reform activists join hands and surround the Tennessee State Capitol in prayer ahead of a special session on August 21, 2023 in Nashville, Tennessee. Republican Tennessee Governor Bill Lee called for the special legislation session on public safety in response to public outcry after the The Covenant School mass shooting, where three children and three staff were killed. Credit - Jon Cherry—Getty Images

After a shooter killed six people at a Christian school in Nashville earlier this year, the state’s Republican governor promised a special session devoted to public safety. But gun safety groups and Democrats say the session, which began Monday, has been counterproductive, with Republicans putting forth proposals to arm teachers and traumatized parents being ejected from a hearing room.

“We were called down here to deal with the gun violence epidemic that's happening in Tennessee… Instead, we’re increasing access to guns,” says Democratic Rep. Bob Freeman of Nashville, who sponsored proposals that would have established red flag laws, which also can be known as extreme risk protection orders. These laws typically make it harder for guns to fall into unsafe hands by allowing family members, health care providers, or roommates to petition a judge to temporarily seize guns from people considered a threat to themselves or others. Three measures for such orders authored by Freeman failed in a House subcommittee on Tuesday.

At the same time, Republicans are pushing proposals that would arm teachers in schools and allow those with a special permit requiring eight hours of training to carry a handgun openly or concealed in any K-12 public school building, campus, or bus. The GOP bills that could increase the presence of guns in schools are unlikely to pass the state senate.

The Republican authors of the house and senate versions of the proposals, Rep. Chris Todd, Rep. Ryan Williams, and Sen. Paul Bailey, did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Three nine-year-olds and three school staff members died in the Covenant School shooting on March 27. The shooter, who owned seven legally purchased guns, had planned the mass murder for months, police said. Law enforcement killed the shooter, who they later identified as 28-year-old Audrey Hale, minutes after arriving on the scene. Police said that Hale’s parents didn’t know Hale owned weapons, and that Hale had been under a doctor’s care for an emotional disorder.

Some argue that the Covenant School shooting may not have happened if a red flag law existed. “There was no avenue for the family to say—hey, our relative should not be buying a gun. That’s been true in other mass shootings where shooters have legally bought a gun, above the concerns of family or authority figures,” says Jonathan Metzl, director of the Department of Medicine, Health, and Society at Vanderbilt University, in Nashville. As of Wednesday, the red-flag proposals in Tennessee have little hope of advancing.

The Tennessee legislature has drawn national attention since April, when the Republican supermajority expelled two Black Democratic house members after they took part in a gun violence protest in the wake of the shooting. (Reps. Justin Jones and Justin Pearson both won their seats back in a special election in August.)

Still, there was a brief opening after the school shooting in which Tennessee Republicans, including the governor, appeared willing to stray from their rigid positions on gun issues, experts say. Three weeks after the shooting, a Vanderbilt University poll found bipartisan support for red flag laws—with 72% of the 1,003 respondents saying they approved of such measures to prevent gun violence. “People who had been staunch gun rights supporters to really almost unimaginable levels were willing to say: hey, let's see if we can find some common ground,” Metzl says. “Unfortunately, it’s just become politics as usual.”

In the aftermath of the shooting, Tennessee Governor Bill Lee signed an executive order tightening firearm background checks. He also announced support for an extreme risk protection order law, which would allow courts and police to temporarily remove firearms from people for up to 180 days if the judge found a “current” and significant risk of harm to themselves or others. Lee’s initial proposal would not apply to “ex parte” orders in which a judge lets police remove a person’s gun before appearing in court. In recent weeks, Lee has spoken about calls for public safety and mental health reform more broadly. In an August 8 proclamation of priorities for the special session, he called for promoting the safe storage of guns—including by eliminating taxes on firearm safes and safety devices and the provision of free gun locks. Republicans in the state legislature supported Lee’s calls to bolster school security but backed away from his initial support for an extreme risk protection order, and the legislature ignored Lee’s extreme risk protection order proposal and did not sponsor it. “That particular piece of legislation has not been picked up by sponsors but there are dozens of ideas from multiple lawmakers that we believe will make Tennessee safer,” Lee said, according to the Associated Press.

Freeman, the Democratic state lawmaker, says he took Republican concerns into consideration when crafting his own proposal for a red flag law. He says he accommodated their demands on not allowing an ex parte removal of firearms and imposing stiff penalties for false reporting. “I feel like I addressed everybody's comments and concerns, and they still voted it down,” Freeman says. “We need real courage in Tennessee for our folks to start dealing with this because they're just randomly coming up with reasons why they're against it.”

Sarah Shoop Neumann, a mother of a young son at the Covenant School, was temporarily kicked out of a hearing room along with other parents at the state capitol on Tuesday morning while they waited to testify against the proposal to arm teachers. She started crying as a Tennessee Republican lawmaker ordered state troopers to remove them. “It was really overwhelming,” she says. “I strongly feel that we don’t need to militarize our schools to keep them safe.” She was eventually allowed back in to testify.

Over the last few months, she says she has been fielding difficult questions from her son. “He asks questions I never thought a six-year-old would ask,” she says. He asks if this has happened before and whether another “bad person” could come to the school. He says his teachers “did a good job” and knew what to do because they practiced in “bad guy drills.”

Helena Spigner, a 20-year-old Vanderbilt University student and Students Demand Action leader, was also at the state capitol this week to testify against the bill arming teachers. She is pursuing a career in education. “As a future educator, it does make me very uncomfortable to know that I may be spending my days in a classroom where I'm expected to not only teach students the curriculum but protect them in a way that I will never feel comfortable doing because I don't think…I should also be wielding a weapon for the most dangerous times of our lives,” she says.

Correction, Aug. 24

The original version of this story misstated the name of the Students Demand Action leader. Her name is Helena Spigner, not Helena Spinner.

Write to Sanya Mansoor at sanya.mansoor@time.com.