Tennessee’s much-anticipated special legislative session, called by its Republican Gov. Bill Lee in the wake of a mass shooting at The Covenant School in March, came to a teary end on Tuesday with no legislation passed to restrict access to guns.
Footage from the state capitol showed the parents of students at The Covenant School bawling as they helplessly held signs in protest—their pleas of the last five months falling on the deaf ears of Tennessee’s deep-red state House and Senate.
Mary Joyce, the mom of a surviving Covenant student, wept as she told reporters she was “sick” of nothing being done in the shooting’s aftermath. Joyce said her daughter’s best friend, 9-year-old Hallie Scruggs, was shot dead in the massacre. Two other students and three staff members were also gunned down by Audrey Hale, a former student who was shot dead at the scene by cops.
Joyce said it’s horrific that her child knows what it feels like to be shot at “over and over and over again,” and that nothing was done in the special session to further prevent more kids from potentially experiencing the same.
The special session came to a chaotic end just before noon, with the House speaker, Cameron Sexton, having to push through a crowd to leave the chambers amid chants of “throw him out.” As Sexton’s entourage left, men that appeared to be his security detail pushed Rep. Justin Pearson, a Democrat, who was trying to hold a sign in front of Sexton’s face.
Chaos at the end of the Tennessee House special session, where Republicans adjourned without passing meaningful gun reform.
Rep. Justin Pearson (D) then approaches Speaker Cameron Sexton (R) with a sign, and Sexton and his security/staff physically push past him. pic.twitter.com/YJSiv7RJTV
— The Recount (@therecount) August 29, 2023
Pearson was one of two Black lawmakers who was expelled from the House by Republicans earlier this year after they called for new gun legislation. Pearson has since been reelected in his district and has been a thorn in Sexton’s side.
Lee announced the special session just days after the shooting, saying he was counting on lawmakers to pass gun reform laws that’d make it harder for mentally ill and “dangerous” people to buy a gun. Those plans were quickly thwarted by the state’s Republicans, however, who vehemently refused to pass anything that infringed any access to guns.
Instead, some Republicans used the special session to try and pass legislation that would’ve allowed more guns on school campuses. House Bill 7064, which was introduced on the session’s first day and passed an initial vote, would have allowed enhanced gun permit holders, cops, and military members—both active duty and retired, on-duty and off-duty—to be able to possess and carry a handgun at any public school building, bus, campus, or grounds.
The controversial bill failed to make it past the House’s Education Administration committee and was thrown out on Wednesday, eliciting cheers from spectators in the chamber.
The few legislative changes that were passed in the session were minor. Representatives voted in favor of allocating money to advertise a state program offering free gun safes, and an executive order was codified to set a 72-hour period for reporting new criminal activity to the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation. The legislators will meet again in January for their regular session.
Melissa Alexander, a Covenant mom who said she’s a Republican, called her party’s representatives compassionless on Monday.
“This lack of action is a choice they are making and speaks volumes about their lack of compassion and their priority of personal agendas over the people of Tennessee—even their own Republican constituents, including myself,” she said.
It was an emotional seven days for those associated with The Covenant School. Spectators were booted from a hearing on its first day for holding signs that read “1 Kid > All The Guns,” which reportedly included the grieving parents of shooting victims. Reporters present said those parents wept as they were escorted out of the chambers.
Tennessee legislators did the same on Monday, clearing out spectators for voicing their disdain.
Also on Monday, members of the chamber voted 70-20 along party lines to ban Democrat Rep. Justin Jones from speaking for the rest of the day, claiming he’d gone off-topic twice. Jones said he was only pleading for more mental health professionals and counselors in schools, and for a pay bump for teachers.
House Democrats walked out of the chambers alongside Jones in protest after he was silenced.
“All I was doing was focusing on lifting up the voice of Davidson County, of my district, who say we need mental health professionals, counselors, we need common sense gun laws,” Jones said Monday.
Karen Camper, the House minority leader, told reporters after the session ended that it was a failure and waste of resources.
“It’s been a complete waste of time, it’s been a waste of taxpayer money,” she told reporters on Tuesday. “People expected us to do something to make the public safer. We did nothing.”