'They're begging us to do something:' Nashville lawmaker calls for gun reform as hundreds protest after Covenant shooting
Tennessee state Rep. Bob Freeman, D-Nashville, has struggled to find the words this week as his district, and the city at large, reels from the deadliest school shooting in state history that left three children and three staff dead on Monday.
Freeman grappled with the tragedy as an elected official and as a father, as his young daughter attended the same Sunday school class as one of the Covenant School victims.
"What's the right way to help a child grieve the loss of a friend and the loss of innocence?" Freeman asked his House colleagues.
"Parents dropped their kids off on a beautiful spring morning with no idea their lives would forever be changed at a moment of senseless gun violence."
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For more than a thousand people on Thursday morning, their response to the Covenant shooting led them up the steps of the Tennessee Capitol and into its halls, where they crowded into its marble rotunda and lined the chamber galleries.
As their chants for "gun reform now" rang out, Tennessee Highway Patrol members were forced to hold open paths for lawmakers and staff to get into the House chamber, which eventually erupted in an unprecedented confrontation sparked by two freshman lawmakers.
Inside, Freeman stood with his Democratic colleagues calling for "common-sense reforms" including red flag laws and background. Freeman addressed his Republican supermajority colleagues, who in recent years have relaxed gun laws in the state and show little indication they will support tightening gun regulations despite the school shooting.
"Our children, our teachers and our neighbors were killed by a weapon of war obtained legally by someone that should never have had the ability to carry out this type of violence against our community," Freeman said.
Freeman urged his colleagues to listen to the crowd waiting outside the House doors.
"They're out there right now. They're begging for us to do something," Freeman said.
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Even as the crowds continued to chant outside, the House moved on to its lengthy Thursday agenda, which included bills delayed on Monday when lawmakers chose to pause floor debates hours after the Covenant shooting.
But the House floor descended into chaos later in the morning, after House Speaker Cameron Sexton, R-Crossville, repeatedly gaveled down members of the public in the gallery and two outspoken freshman Democrats who continually called for colleagues to address gun reform.
"I'm asking you to do your job," one woman screamed from the gallery. "There is blood on your hands. Do your job."
After butting heads with Rep. Justin Pearson, D-Memphis, and Rep. Justine Jones, D-Nashville, Sexton called all leadership up to the dais. As leaders of both the Republican and Democratic caucuses engaged in heated discussions, Pearson and Jones took over the House chamber well.
The pair, flanked by Rep. Gloria Johnson, D-Knoxville, began leading the House galleries in chants of "gun reform now."
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Young people flock to Capitol to call for gun reform
Sarah Braam, Davern Cigarran, Alexine Stewart and Sullivan Strobel, all juniors at Harpeth Hall School, huddled together ahead of the protest.“We’re like one of several carfuls coming,” Braam said. “Our dean said we could have an excused absence to be here today.”Junior year is a busy time in a high schooler’s career getting ready for the next steps in their lives, but all four girls felt it was vitally important to represent children their age at the Capitol Thursday.“I feel like it's an issue that needs to be seriously addressed,” Cigarran said. “I also feel like the Covenant shooting is something that impacted a lot of people in our community very directly. I think this is something that can’t just be, you know, ignored or protested for four days and then forgotten about.”
McNally calls for school security changes
In a letter to Gov. Bill Lee, Senate speaker Lt. Gov. Randy McNally this week called for increased school security measures in response to the Covenant shooting.
"While these changes would come with a cost, I believe it is important for us to have a conversation about how to increase and modernize security at schools in Tennessee," McNally said. "Much like the institution of fire codes has decreased the amount of school building fires, I believe we can come up with something similar for school safety.
McNally pointed to the Covenant shooter's access of the school by shooting through glass doors at a side entrance vestibule, calling for securing windows and glass with "bullet proof or resistant" film.
McNally also called for magnetic locks on doors to ease first responder access to building doors that might be locked down in an emergency, in addition to "centralized and modernized camera systems."
The speaker also called for an armed guard at every public and private school. Tennessee public schools currently have access to school resource officers.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: After Nashville school shooting, hundreds demand gun reform