Just like the 50-year struggle to overturn the precedent set in Roe v. Wade legalizing abortion, Tennesseans advocating for measures to address gun violence are facing a long road ahead.
The recent special session of the 113th Tennessee General Assembly, called in response to the shooting that happened at The Covenant School this past March, ended in disappointment and disarray as little to no progress was made regarding the safe ownership of guns.
“Much like the fight against abortion, this is a life issue,” said Rick Musacchio, executive director of the Tennessee Catholic Conference.
Recent high profile mass shootings at The Covenant School in Nashville, the Old National Bank in Louisville, Kentucky, and at a doctor’s office just outside of Memphis have brought wide attention to the issue of gun violence in Tennessee and beyond. Nationally, gun violence, including homicides, suicides, and accidental shootings, claim thousands of lives every year.
“Shootings like The Covenant School, the Old National Bank, and the Campbell Clinic in Collierville are horrific, but the numbers of gun-related deaths in both Tennessee and nationally go well beyond that kind of high-profile attack on innocent life,” Musacchio said. “Gun deaths make up the majority of deaths of people under 18, and there are quite a number of reasonable steps that could be directed at reducing access to firearms while still respecting the right to bear arms.”
A recent study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that guns were the leading cause of death for children and teens in 2022, continuing the trend from 2021. Researchers at the John Hopkins Center for Gun Violence Solutions provided the data analysis.
The study shows that more than 48,000 people died by guns in 2022, a 21 percent increase since 2019. While this number reflects a 6.8 percent decrease in homicide-related gun violence from 2021, suicide rates by the use of a firearm increased 1.6 percent from 2021, with 26,993 dying in 2022.
For more information about the study, visit publichealth.jhu.edu/2023/cdc-provisional-data-gun-suicides-reach-all-time-high-in-2022-gun-homicides-down-slightly-from-2021.
“Finding effective ways to reduce the number of gun-related deaths is essential to the common good and for the safety of our communities,” Musacchio said.
Voices for a Safer Tennessee is one non-profit coalition, comprised of 20,000 members across the state of Tennessee, including many Catholics throughout the Diocese of Nashville, looking to make a difference.
“We are not advocating for the elimination of people’s second amendment rights,” said Nicole Smith, mother of two St. Bernard Academy students and a member of the coalition. “What we are advocating for is that if you own a firearm it comes with a really great responsibility to be safe.
“Our coalition is so beautiful because it is made up of people from all different walks of life – Democrats, Republicans, Independents, men, women, rural, urban – and through all of the conversations that we’ve had, we are able to find that common ground on this particular issue,” she added. “We have found, through conversation and dialogue and listening that, no matter where you lie on the political spectrum, there are some really middle ground things that pretty much everyone can get behind.”
Part of that common ground is the support of three specific safety measures that Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee announced his intention to pursue shortly after the shooting at The Covenant School occurred.
- Allowing authorities to temporarily remove guns from those who pose a risk to themselves or others by implementing an Order of Protection law.
- Requiring background checks on all firearm purchases and closing the background check loophole.
- Requiring all gun owners to implement safe storage and report lost and stolen guns.
The three bishops of Tennessee, several Diocese of Nashville leaders, and the Tennessee Catholic Conference, came out in support of the three measures. “Polls have shown (the three measures) to be widely popular among Tennesseans,” Musacchio said.
Gov. Lee announced his intent to take those actions toward an effort of being passed into law, calling the General Assembly into a special session, which began on Monday, Aug. 21, at the State Capitol, to consider bills addressing gun violence.
“As our nation faces evolving public safety threats, Tennessee remains vigilant and is taking continued action to protect communities while preserving the constitutional rights of law-abiding citizens,” Lee said in his official call for the special session. “In the months leading up to the public safety special session, we have listened to Tennesseans and worked with members of the General Assembly to identify thoughtful, practical measures to strengthen public safety across our state, including steps to support law enforcement, address mental health, prevent violent crime, and stop human trafficking. I thank the General Assembly for its continued partnership and look forward to achieving meaningful results for Tennesseans.”
A long road ahead
During the special session, which lasted six days and drew many protesters rallying around the call for more safety measures regarding gun ownership to be put in place, legislators declined to take up much of the governor’s agenda.
“The special session was disappointing in the sense that it did not bring forth the simple, potentially effective, proposals that we backed when the governor announced his initial call for extreme orders of protection, enhanced background checks, and required safe storage,” Musacchio said. “Instead, it pointed out that efforts to address gun violence are going to require a sustained effort.”
While some of the bills the Legislature took up during the special session did offer small actions on the second and third measures originally announced by Lee, there was still much pushback from a majority of legislators on the extreme order of protection law. Instead, they asked for an updated report on human trafficking and had numerous bills that focused on the expansion of mental health services in the state.
“Of course, there is a need for that, and it is an important component of enhancing the common good for the people of Tennessee,” Musacchio noted of the mental health measures. “That is a vital and needed thing in the state of Tennessee, and some good can definitely come from that.”
After discussing several proposed bills in the first days of the special session, the Senate advanced only three for further consideration when it reconvened on Monday, Aug. 28, Musacchio explained. They included one that will codify Gov. Lee’s executive order to enhance background checks into law, a bill that will encourage but not require the safe storage of firearms, and one directing the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation to study human trafficking.
The special session adjourned on Tuesday, Aug. 29, after little further action. The House ultimately passed the same slate of bills that the Senate had adopted earlier, sending three pieces of legislation to the governor for his signature.
In addition to those three pieces of legislation, the General Assembly passed an appropriations bill to authorize the spending of nearly $60,000 a day to fund the operation of the special session. Following negotiations to end the special session, the chambers agreed to spend more than $100 million on various public safety issues, including additional safety measures for charter schools, mental and behavioral health services, and gun storage measures.
Even with these bills and investments in place, however, the special session adjourned not with positive feelings but with much anger and ill-will amongst legislatures, particularly in the House of Representatives. This included much tension and dispute in the House as they attempted to block members of the public from bringing small signs into the gallery and committee room though this was ultimately ruled as a violation to First Amendment rights; the ability to silence any Democratic representatives deemed “disruptive” or “off-topic;” and having restricted access to the chambers. A few spectators were also forcibly removed by Tennessee state troopers.
Through it all, one thing remains clear.
“It is the beginning of a long, long process toward reasonable, safe gun legislation in Tennessee,” Musacchio said.
Keeping the discussion going
As the length of the fight for safer gun measures becomes more apparent, Voices for a Safer Tennessee is working to keep the discussion going by hosting several panel discussions that allow for Tennesseans to understand the laws currently in place and what implementing the three safety measures proposed by the governor would mean.
One such panel discussion, “Faith, Firearms, and Safer Communities” was held on Sunday, Aug. 20, in St. Henry Church’s Fellowship Hall. Panelists discussed everything from why they support the three safety measures to their thoughts on how mental illness plays a role in gun violence and how Tennesseans can make their voices heard.
Father Mark Beckman, pastor of St. Henry Church, was on the panel. He is one of several leaders in the diocese who has shown continuous support for the passage of the three safety measures, including being one of many religious leaders to sign a letter to the governor and the Tennessee General Assembly last April, urging their passage.
“I feel like we can do something to make our world safer, and one of the great threats to our communities today, especially children, is gun violence, some self-inflicted, some against others,” Father Beckman said. “This panel discussion was a good place to start because people have an opportunity to learn about what the current regulations are, and it provides them with something they can take home to make a difference.
“With the Voices for a Safer Tennessee community, they really do outline some very helpful policy recommendations for things we can do to make things safer and how to contact legislators,” he added, noting during the panel discussion that having such safety laws in place is equivalent to the laws in place for being able to drive a car. There is a certain responsibility to use them in a safe manner that protects the larger community.
Other members of the panel included: Torry Johnson, former district attorney general for Davidson County for more than 26 years; Dr. Allen Petz, a physician in the Acute Care Surgery Department at Vanderbilt Medical Center; and Erin Rogus, senior policy advisor in the office of former Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, M.D. The discussion was moderated by Steve Cavendish, editor of the Nashville Banner, an online news organization.
Approximately 200 Tennesseans attended the panel discussion, something that Voices for a Safer Tennessee member Erin Hafkenschiel Donnelly, a parishioner of Christ the King Church and a St. Bernard Academy parent, said proved the importance of continuing the discussion.
Gun ownership “is such a fraught issue that people have a lot of emotions about and has typically been such a partisan issue,” she said. “I think having these discussions where people come in with a willingness to listen and be open-minded, it really creates the type of civil discourse that we’re missing in this country and allows people to have fruitful discussions and conversations.
“One of the reasons we’ve gotten to this place where firearms are the number one cause of children’s deaths is because, for too long, when we talked about guns it was either you’re pro second amendment or you’re pro banning guns entirely,” Hafkenschiel Donnelly continued. “As (Voices for a Safer Tennessee) started getting into this issue area, I was shocked to learn that there are 50 different policies on the books across the 50 states, and they run this continuum between assault weapons bans over here and universal background checks on the other side.
“That’s also why we need these discussions because people don’t understand there are so many different options between those two points of view,” she concluded. “We want to have conversations about what could be possible that allow for a common ground. All of the policies we are advocating for are already on the books in other states, so we know they are both effective and constitutional. That balance can be achieved.”
A step in the right direction
While there is still a long way to go in achieving the desired result, Smith said, the special session does represent a step in the right direction.
“We have to start somewhere. As we look at the special session, we commend Gov. Bill Lee for making the call,” Smith added. “We wanted a much broader scope, but we find value in the first steps.
“I think that if you talked to many people a year ago, they would’ve told you that we would never be having the conversation that we’re having right now in Tennessee. So the fact that we are and that hundreds of people gathered in this fellowship hall to talk about it, means something,” she continued.
“Will we get everything that we are advocating for this week during the special session? Absolutely not. Are we in it for the long haul? Are we in it to make sure that the next session and the session after that, we keep the conversation going? Absolutely.
“I always tell people, this is a marathon, not a sprint,” Smith concluded. “We have to continue chipping away, keeping the conversation going. Anything that happens in this special session that aligns with our goal of creating a safer Tennessee is a good first step. We will celebrate those things, and then we’ll keep advocating for more.”
For more information about the Voices for a Safer Tennessee coalition, visit safertn.org. For the full panel discussion, visit the St. Henry Church Facebook page.
For more information about the Tennessee Catholic Conference, visit tncatholic.org.