Tennessee lawmakers silent on gun control despite school shooting

Tensions have soared this week as activists pushing for gun reform were removed from a committee hearing.
Posted at 4:21 PM, Aug 24, 2023

Desperate parents were pleading for gun reform at the Tennessee State Capitol, as the legislature entered its fourth day of a special session.

The General Assembly has been considering a wide range of bills this week focused on public safety, mental health and guns. The parents' message is clear: Children's safety over guns. It's all in an effort to prevent another school shooting.

Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee called the special session in response to the Covenant School shooting earlier this year, when a former student armed with an AR-15 style rifle and other guns killed six people, including three 9-year-olds. More than 100 bills have been filed for consideration during the session.

But, with Tennessee's State House currently led by a Republican majority, debate over some form of gun control has been largely absent. 

Tennessee House Republicans passed a new set of rules at the start of the session that allows them to silence lawmakers who are deemed disruptive from participating in debates, in response to protests earlier this year on the House floor and gallery.

Democrats have criticized the special session, including State Rep. Justin Jones, who was expelled earlier this year for using a bullhorn on the House floor to demand stronger gun laws after the Covenant School shooting.

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"This is our special session that was supposed to be around gun violence but what we see is a party more concerned with stifling and stopping free speech and dissent than they are about stopping the gun violence that is plaguing our community and state," said Jones. 

So far this week, parents were escorted out of a committee hearing for silently holding up signs. And later, the entire room was told to leave because of clapping.

"When moms are thrown out of committee meetings for holding an 8-by-11 sign across their chest, but guns are allowable in committee there is a whole new brand of malfeasance and irrationality happening at the Capitol," said Carol Frazier, a volunteer with Moms Demand Action.

Protest signs are back at the Capitol, after a judge agreed to temporarily block the new rule that banned handheld signs in House hearing rooms and House galleries. This comes after the ACLU in Tennessee said it filed a lawsuit Wednesday to protect free speech.

Meanwhile, a bill that would have relaxed restrictions on who could bring guns on public school campuses failed after a heated debate.

The bill's sponsor, Republican Rep. Chris Todd, defended the bill before it was shot down.

"And of the 28 states, since they've enacted this type of law have had zero school shootings at all. Zero. The proof is in the pudding," said Todd. 

On the Senate side, lawmakers have only passed a handful of bills, including one that would provide free gunlocks to Tennesseans who request them and removes state sales tax on gun safes.