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Tennessee Republicans on Tuesday ended a special session of the state legislature devoted to public safety without passing any new restrictions on firearm access, bringing to a close an emotional and chaotic week that was punctuated by tearful pleas from parents whose children survived a mass shooting at a Nashville Christian school.
The special session, ordered by Gov. Bill Lee, a Republican, over objections from within his own party, had ostensibly been an opportunity for lawmakers to help prevent a repeat of the violence at the Covenant School, where three students and three adults were killed.
But it instead offered a bitter epilogue to the vitriolic final weeks of the regular session in April, during which the Republican supermajority ignored thousands of protesters calling for modest gun control and then expelled two Black Democrats for leading a protest from the House floor.
The special session concluded with a heated scuffle on the House floor, as those two Democrats – Representatives Justin Jones and Justin J. Pearson – confronted Speaker Cameron Sexton as he began to leave the chamber. Mr. Pearson and Mr. Sexton collided with each other in the crowd, and tempers flared as lawmakers traded accusations of intentional shoving.
“I don’t care what political side you’re on,” Mary Joyce, a Covenant parent, said after the legislature had adjourned, her voice raw with tears and anger. “These are our children.”
House Republicans had begun the special session by muscling through new rules of conduct that would allow them to silence any member deemed to have repeatedly spoken out of turn or off topic. On Monday, that rule was used to silence Mr. Jones, sparking an outcry.
Republicans also enacted a ban on signs – already limited to the size of a sheet of printer paper – that led to a few women being escorted out for holding signs. The women sued on First Amendment grounds, and a Nashville court overturned the ban.
The crackdown on dissent further inflamed tensions over the special session, which Democrats had dismissed as inadequate and conservative Republicans had resisted as a possible infringement on the constitutional rights of gun owners.
And it left a core group of Covenant School parents – speaking for themselves, their children and the parents of the three 9-year-olds who were killed – to spend day after day publicly reliving the trauma of the attack.
Mr. Lee, who lost two family friends in the shooting, had called for an order of protection law that would temporarily allow firearms to be confiscated from those deemed by a court to be a threat to themselves or others. Democrats and experts had pushed for far tougher legislation, while the parents braced themselves for only modest success.
But Senate Republicans quickly shelved all but a few bills. They gaveled in and out of committees in just minutes with little debate and refused to take up most legislation.
House Republicans, while willing to consider more legislation, panned any firearm restriction proposals and focused on other mental health bills and a push to toughen juvenile crime sentencing.
And both chambers rejected calls from Democrats to address gun violence, the leading cause of death for children in the United States.
“I think it’s good to remember that Tennessee is not just Nashville, Tennessee is not just Memphis,” said State Representative Jeremy Faison, a member of the House Republican leadership. He added, “There’s literally no one in my district asking me to do anything like what they asked.”
Ultimately, after barely six days of work, the legislature sent Mr. Lee just a few policy bills, some of which codified existing policy in Tennessee, including measures that would require the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation to produce a comprehensive report on human trafficking, ensure faster updates to the state’s background check system and provide incentives for the safe storage of guns at home. They also approved a funding bill to shore up some mental health and security resources.
“We should recognize the significance of this special session – we made progress in public safety,” Mr. Lee told reporters. “And we elevated a conversation about public safety that will continue into the future.”
Lt. Gov. Randy McNally defended the session as a success, saying that “these things take time” and that more work could be done when the legislature returned in January.
The session began last week with the deep divide on guns on clear display. Protesters wearing the orange and red associated with gun control advocacy converged on the legislature. Gun rights groups showed up, too, as did a handful of the far-right Proud Boys, their faces largely shrouded as they argued with protesters.
Each time a meeting wrapped up without action on gun control, protesters would break into shouts, warning Republicans about primary challengers and yelling through tears about their anger, grief and disappointment. The temporary ban on signs led several to scrawl slogans on their arms, hands and clothing, or to hold their phones high to display flashing phrases.
But with the legislature unwilling to consider the tougher proposals they had spent the summer lobbying for, the Covenant parents quietly shifted the focus of their resolve.
One unexpectedly difficult victory was for a few mothers, pleading through sobs for the chance to be heard, to testify about their community’s experiences – an opportunity that was jeopardized at least twice after Republicans cleared the room or sought to cut debate short. (At least one lawmaker later apologized.)
The women then described what had happened at Covenant on March 27. How teachers, with shaking hands, barely had time to lock classroom doors. How one teacher persuaded a pre-K class to race, as a way to give running to safety the appearance of a game. How William Kinney, 9, a proud line leader, had moved to lead his class through what they thought was a fire drill, only to be caught in the gunfire that had set off the alarm.
Setting aside ambitions for tougher gun control until the regular session in January, the parents urged the adoption of legislation that, after what happened to the third grade class, would help establish new practices to differentiate between a fire drill and an unexpected emergency fire alarm.
They also pushed for a measure that would exempt the autopsies and medical examiner reports of children killed in homicides from public records law without parental permission.
Yet with senators opposed, both measures failed to make it out of the legislature. As the session dragged on, the parents grew increasingly frustrated and angry, rallying around an impromptu pledge to make lawmakers “get used to seeing these faces” by returning again and again to the legislature.
But on Tuesday, several mothers broke down into tears of exhaustion and anger, as there was little to show for their weeks of lobbying and work. In front of a closed House chamber, they gathered with Mr. Pearson and other Democrats and prayed – for strength and for love.