Tennessee’s special legislative session, held in the shadow of the worst school shooting in state history, ended Tuesday with no significant changes to the state’s gun laws and only a narrow slate of bills sending more money toward public safety issues.
Gun safety advocates entered the Capitol last week aware chances were slim to none for substantial gun reform in the Tennessee General Assembly, a body with a Republican supermajority with no eagerness to restrict access to firearms.
Still, days of contentious committee meetings and a stubborn impasse between the two chambers were eye-opening to the messy, often dysfunctional nature of Tennessee politics for political newcomers who have been energized to act by the Covenant School shooting in March, including many parents of survivors who have remained front and center through the special session. Six people died in the shooting, including three children.
The upper and lower chambers remained in a stubborn cold war after Senate Republicans, many of whom did not want to convene a special session at all under pressure from conservative firearms groups, moved through some committees in a matter of seconds without considering bills.
News emerged Tuesday morning that Republican leadership had reached an agreement to end the session after a meeting in Gov. Bill Lee’s office. The agreement led to the passage of just three bills and appropriations legislation.
Sarah Shoop Neumann, the mother of a Covenant survivor, sobbed outside the House chamber Tuesday morning.
“We held a special session following the extraordinary tragedy of a mass shooting that took place at the Covenant School, and we took no meaningful action,” Shoop Neumann said. “The divisiveness we have all witnessed makes us long for a unified community. We need legislators on both sides of the aisle to be able to have respectful, thoughtful debate regarding potential solutions to end gun violence.”
Shoop Neumann said lawmakers who don’t want to work together “do not deserve a seat in the House or the Senate.””We will work towards ensuring every one of those seats is replaced by someone who has a true desire to listen to their constituents over firearm association lobbyists,” she said. “We will be back in January.”
Republican Senate leaders had for days refused to consider legislation beyond a handful of bills that did little beyond codifying Lee’s spring executive order to streamline the state’s background check system.
Senate and House Republicans jockeyed over funding for an ad campaign on gun safety that the Department of Safety would be required to undertake, something the department already has the authority to do. The Senate concurred with the House to restore $1.1 million back into the bill for the effort.
In a funding bill to pay for the session, the Senate had previously allocated $16 million for sign-on bonuses and pay incentives for mental health workers in the state’s Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services.
The House reduced that to $12 million in bonuses, and allocated the remaining $4 million for behavioral health safety net grants. The chambers also agreed on funds for college campus security.
They also passed a bill directing the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation to submit a report on human trafficking, data the TBI already collects.
Democrats decried a lack of action on gun reform.
Displaying photos of 28 children who died from gunshot wounds across the state this year, Senate Minority Leader Raumesh Akbari, D-Memphis, lamented the outcome of the session.
“No one should leave this building today saying we made Tennessee safer,” she said. “Because that is simply not true. We didn’t enact any new policies, we didn’t meet the needs of these parents, who are just crying out for us to do something.”
TN special session live updates: As House, Senate end special session, chaos ensues
Session brings out raw emotions
Tempers were high and emotions raw by Tuesday.
Decisions by the Republican supermajority to enact new House rules limiting the actions of protesters threatened to overshadow any legislative accomplishments, sparking public image issues and a constitutional lawsuit the state so far has failed to fight off.
The House Republican Caucus also attempted an inter-chamber prank, bizarrely involving an ostrich egg, that infuriated some Senators as House Republicans criticized the chamber for tabling bills in committee. The House GOP Twitter account later deleted its ostrich egg posts, though the same account criticized Democrats on Monday night and said the House “is a place for serious legislators to do the business of the people.”
Both parties moved to adjournment in the House with gritted teeth on Tuesday.
House Republicans hoped to push forward more legislation but couldn’t break the Senate stalemate, while Democrats have continually decried a lack of substantive reform to address gun violence in the state, where guns are now the leading non-medical cause of death for children.
“It’s been a complete waste of time. It’s been a waste of taxpayer money,” said House Minority Leader Karen Camper, D-Memphis. “People expected us to do something to make the public safer. We did nothing.”
A number of bills backed by Covenant parents withered under the agreement to send the session, including a measure to block from public release children’s autopsies carried by House Majority Leader William Lamberth, R-Portland.
“I’m very disappointed that we didn’t get more done in this special session,” Lamberth said. “In the House, we had a lot of bills that got left on the table that I hope will still be taken back up in January to help families in Tennessee be safer.”
Tensions between Republicans, Democrats in House
House adjournment led to a shoving scrum on the chamber floor as House Speaker Cameron Sexton, R-Crossville, attempted to leave. Reps. Justin Jones, D-Nashville, and Justin Pearson, D-Memphis, had attempted to confront Sexton at the speaker’s dais, holding handmade signs, as the speaker exited the chamber.
Amid jostling from his security, Sexton appeared to make physical contact with Pearson, Sexton turned back and shook his finger toward the Nashville Democrat’s face, shouting something unintelligable amid the clamor. Pearson, skirted to the side of the scrum by several Republican lawmakers, then exchanged words with Lamberth.
“We came here and did absolutely nothing to protect kids,” Pearson shouted to the retreating backs of several Republican lawmakers as they left the chamber.
Sexton later said Pearson appeared and “pops” him from the right side. Pearson vowed to explore options to report the incident.
Above, tears, shouts and jeers filled the public gallery, as some protesters yelled, “You don’t represent us,” and “All this for what?” down to lawmakers.
A number of Covenant parents and activists quietly cried, cradled in the arms of friends and families.
Tuesday’s tension between Sexton and Democrats was just the latest of the session. On Monday night, Sexton ruled Jones out of order twice, leading to a 70-20 vote to silence the lawmaker for the remainder of the day under the controversial new House rules.
Democrats walked out en masse to show their support for Jones, who along with Pearson drew international fame as part of the Tennessee Three in April. They were expelled for breaking decorum rules and leading a gun-control protest from the House floor, though both were quickly reappointed.
Camper on Monday said House leadership displayed “preferential treatment” with unfair application of the rules.
“They don’t want to deal with the reality of what’s going on right now in the state of Tennessee,” Camper said.
House Republican leaders criticized the Democratic caucus for decorum breaches, with Lamberth referring to “a couple of bad apples trying to spoil the bunch.”
“It’s unfortunate that it keeps getting there, but you know, it is what it is. I mean, y’all can judge for yourself,” Sexton said.
After lawmaker departures, Lee spoke to reporters about the special session, which he initially told the public last spring he would call to consider extreme risk protection legislation. The governor said he was hopeful and encouraged by the session and public feedback, striking a discordant tone amid tensions between the House and the Senate and disgruntled advocates.
The governor declined to say whether he plans to continue to push forward with the others, or an extreme risk protection order proposal when the legislature returns in January.
“It’s good when we make progress of any kind, and we have made progress, and we will continue to make progress,” Lee said.
Lee also thanked Covenant families for engaging with the legislative process – while holding his news conference at the same time as one held by the Covenant families. Down the street, those families tearfully expressed frustration and resolute grief over the special session’s early adjournment.
“Their presence made a difference,” Lee said. “They also reminded Tennessee that there is hope in the midst of tragedy, and they brought that hope into this process.”
In the end, Covenant families and their supporters said they expect many more difficult conversations ahead.
“Today we will go home and we’ll look at our children in the eyes, many of whom were sheltered from gunfire that tragic day on March 27,” Covenant mother Mary Joyce said.”They will ask what our leaders have done over the past week and a half to protect them. As a mother, I’m going to have to look at my 9-year-old in the eye and tell her nothing.”