Last spring, in the days following the horrific attack at The Covenant School in Nashville that left six people dead, including three 9-year-old children, Gov. Bill Lee announced that he would call the General Assembly into a special session on public safety to consider measures that might reduce gun violence in our state.
But rather than produce the significant changes in the law that some had hoped for, the special session devolved into bitter divisions: Republicans against Democrats; the House of Representatives versus the State Senate; legislators angry with the governor; elected officials facing off with members of the public. In such a vitriolic atmosphere, the results are being called meager by some and disappointing for many.
After the governor announced that he would call for a special session “to continue our important discussion about solutions to keep Tennessee communities safe and preserve the constitutional rights of law-abiding citizens,” the three Catholic bishops of Tennessee joined faith leaders across the state in signing a letter urging legislators to take the following steps:
• Allow authorities to temporarily remove guns from those who pose a risk to themselves or others by implementing Extreme Risk Laws.
• Keep guns away from dangerous people by requiring background checks on all purchases and closing the background check loophole.
• Stop firearms from falling into the wrong hands by requiring gun owners to provide safe storage and report lost and stolen guns.
The Legislature was unwilling to go that far. Instead, they passed measures that would:
• Offer tax breaks for the purchase of gun safes and gun locks as well as spending $1.1 million on a public service campaign giving away gun locks.
• Spend $30 million on safety upgrades at state universities, $12 million to hire more behavioral health staff; $4 million for behavioral health safety grants; $50 million for community mental health agencies; and $10 million to hire more school safety officers.
• Codify the governor’s order that went into effect earlier this year shortening the time for court clerks to report criminal case information to the state background check system.
• Call for a report from the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation on human trafficking.
The special session showed once again how divided our society is on issues of gun regulation and gun safety. But the problem is real and finding common ground that would reduce gun violence while still respecting the right to bear arms is possible.
In their pastoral message “Confronting a Culture of Violence,” the U.S. bishops reminded us, “We can turn away from violence; we can build communities of greater peace. It begins with a clear conviction: respect for life. Respect for life is not just a slogan or a program; it is a fundamental moral principle flowing from our teaching on the dignity of the human person.”
The path to building communities of greater peace may be rocky and steep, but the journey must continue with prayer and a hope in Jesus Christ that will lead to action by individuals as well as society at large to confront our culture of violence.