Emotions, tempers flare at Tennessee Capitol hours after Nashville school shooting
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Emotions and tempers flared Monday night inside the Tennessee Capitol, just miles from the Nashville private school where three children and three staff members were slain in one of the deadliest school shootings in the state's history.
Republican leadership in both chambers decided to press pause on legislative debate at the regularly scheduled floor sessions Monday after news of the shooting broke. Democrats, some of whom spent the day with Covenant School parents who were waiting to be reunited with their children, decried ongoing legislative efforts to expand access to firearms and called on their colleagues to take action for meaningful gun reform.
The shooting was acknowledged in an emotional prayer from a guest pastor on the Senate floor, where several people were seen wiping away tears before a swift adjournment. Senate Democrats, three of whom are from Nashville, angrily criticized the move to adjourn quickly and not allow comments about the tragedy.
An hour later, Rep. Bo Mitchell, D-Nashville, was admonished on the House floor for telling colleagues not to call themselves "pro-life" if they choose to expand access to firearms. House Speaker Cameron Sexton, R-Crossville, gaveled Mitchell down, suggesting he'd gone off topic from the "welcoming and honoring" agenda item. Mitchell's microphone was temporarily turned off as he responded to Sexton, jabbing his finger at the chamber dais.
"I'll tell you one thing: There's six people today I can't welcome and honor anymore into this hallowed house," Mitchell said after his mic was turned back on. "Y'all just think about those six people and think if your guns are worth it."
Sen. Heidi Campbell, D-Nashville, arrived at the Capitol on Monday after spending several hours at the family reunification site just 2 miles from the Green Hills private school, which is located in her Senate district.
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Campbell described the reunification site, located in a church sanctuary, as the "worst waiting room" she's ever been in. One mother was in the room when she learned her child had been killed.
"I heard her primal scream," Campbell said. "It was a day that the minutes seemed like hours. It took several hours for us to reunify them with their children. It did not have to happen. We have a horrible gun problem in our country."
Mitchell, who was also present at the reunification site, said he wouldn't wish the experience on anyone, but people should have to witness it.
"You need to hear the sound of the mother when she was told that she'd never see her child again," Mitchell said. "I've never heard a sound like that.
"I didn't have one person ask me for thoughts and prayers today. They asked me for courage to come down here and do something."
In a statement earlier Monday, Sexton said "no harm should ever come to any child."
"At some point today, please take a moment to pray for the families impacted by this tragedy," Sexton said. "As we continue learning more details, we appreciate law enforcement and first responders for their quick response neutralizing the threat."
Sexton later said Monday was not the day to debate policy changes as families grieve.
"There's always a later date for that conversation," Sexton said.
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Nashville Democrats on Monday called for legislative action on gun reform, which is unlikely to come from the General Assembly's Republican supermajority, which in recent weeks has moved to drop age limits from 21 to 18 on permit-less carry laws. The law first passed in 2021, with Gov. Bill Lee holding a bill signing ceremony at a Beretta factory.
"We've been preaching this, day in and day out, that we need gun reform," Sen. Charlane Oliver, D-Nashville, said. "Yet we are passing bills that would give more people guns, yet more people don't need them."
House leadership last week signaled they were at odds with Senate Republican leaders on proposed legislation that would open permit-less carry to all firearms, including long guns like assault rifles, instead of just handguns. House Republicans have advanced the measure despite opposition from law enforcement agencies such as the Tennessee Highway Patrol.
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"We're going to talk about mental illness, and we're going to talk about the specificities of this particular shooting," Campbell said. "But in the final analysis, the problem is that we have way too much access to guns. We can support our Second Amendment rights without having a culture that is absolutely diseased when it comes to gun violence."
Authorities on Monday said they believe the shooter, identified as Audrey Hale, gained access to the private Christian school through a side entrance, and responding police followed the sound of gunfire upstairs before shooting Hale.
Police identified the shooter by his name at birth and did not provide another name. He was a transgender man who used male pronouns. The police initially identified him as a woman.
The children killed in the Covenant shooting were identified as Eve Dieckhaus, Hallie Scruggs and William Kinney, all age 9.
Adult victims were Cynthia Peak and Mike Hill, both 61, and 60-year-old Katherine Koonce, who was the head of the school.
Newly elected Rep. Justin Pearson, D-Memphis, read out the names of the victims on Monday night before criticizing a resolution offered in the House earlier this session to "defend" the Second Amendment. Sexton again gaveled the Democratic representative down, saying he wanted to give him a break because he's new but the comment was "out of order."
Pearson's mic was silenced, but he continued standing and speaking as the House adjourned.
"Do something!" Pearson shouted as lawmakers filed out of the House chamber. "Do something!"
Reach Melissa Brown at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article originally appeared on Nashville Tennessean: Nashville Covenant School shooting: Tennessee lawmakers pause floor debates