Opinion | I Can’t Believe I’m Saying This, but I Have Hope for Gun Reform in My State

Summoned by Gov. Bill Lee, the Tennessee General Assembly will convene today for a special session to address gun violence in the state. To many Tennesseans concerned about this issue — and that’s a vast majority of us — our governor’s summons seems like hardly more than political theater. The words “too little, too late” have fallen from our lips. Harsher words have fallen from our lips, too.

This is a governor who waited more than 24 hours to respond to the slaughter of schoolchildren in his own community, a governor whose fealty to the gun lobby’s agenda has heretofore been undisputed, a governor who once made a ceremonial show of signing a permissive gun bill at an actual gun factory.

But after the shooting at the Covenant School on March 27 took the lives of three 9-year-olds and three staff members, Tennesseans of all stripes — left, right and center — demanded change. And for once our governor seemed to hear us.

He signed an executive order intended to strengthen background checks. He called on the legislature to pass a red flag law. When defiant Republicans ended the legislative session early without doing anything to make Tennesseans safer from gun violence, Governor Lee announced that he would be hauling them back in August to try again.

In the context of a Republican supermajority state, these efforts reflect genuine political courage. Tennessee legislators aren’t obliged to do their governor’s bidding, or even work with him to reach a compromise, because they have the numbers to override his veto. They are not accustomed to being called on their pious declamations of thoughts and prayers, and the unusual way the aftermath of this particular mass shooting unfolded — with great swaths of Tennesseans ceaselessly demanding gun reform, week after week after week — apparently caught them off guard.

Republican legislators seemed genuinely shocked at finding themselves the targets of overwhelming national opprobrium after they ejected Justin Jones and Justin Pearson, two Black members of the Tennessee House, for joining protesters in demanding gun reform. They surely did not enjoy having to fend off gun-reform efforts from their governor, too, and they did not react well to being summoned back to Nashville to pass legislation they had already rejected. It was time to move on. This is a country that always moves on after children are slaughtered in their classrooms.

State Republican leaders called for the governor to drop his plans for a special legislative session. Former allies like the Tennessee Firearms Association followed suit. Dudley Brown, president of the National Association for Gun Rights, said, “It is clear that Governor Bill Lee is blatantly flaunting his power to call a special session while ignoring his constituents and the voices of those they chose to represent them.”

None of this is at all surprising. When an elected official throws in his lot with the gun lobby and then dares to diverge from its talking points, he should not be startled when it takes aim at him. Governor Lee made the call anyway, perhaps because he understands what his right-wing critics and legislative colleagues do not: He’s not the one who’s ignoring the voices of his constituents.

Whenever there’s a public protest at the statehouse, Republican legislators like to argue that the protesters are outside agitators — “crazies from other states,” as one legislator put it — but it’s not just protesters who are demanding gun reform.

Consider the fact that voters promptly sent Mr. Jones and Mr. Pearson back to the Tennessee House. Consider the responses the governor got when he requested public feedback on the special legislative session, a great majority of which called for common-sense gun laws. Consider the conversations seeking common ground on gun safety that are happening in churches across the state. Consider the polls, which consistently show that most Tennesseans support background checks (88 percent), safe-storage requirements (82 percent) and red flag laws (70 percent).

Above all, consider what parents at the Covenant School are saying. Last month they started two nonprofits — the Covenant Families Action Fund and Covenant Families for Brighter Tomorrows — to prevent future school shootings. David Teagues, one of the founders of the groups, pointed out that they aren’t asking legislators to enact controversial measures. “The fact that they’re not on the books already is what’s controversial,” he said at a news conference. “In the days afterward, I was telling my kids that the good people are making the school safe so that you can be safe. I’m here because I don’t want to be lying to them.”

No one is happy with the agenda Governor Lee has set for the special session. Republicans don’t want to be there at all, and Democrats are rightly concerned that Republicans will both skirt the most necessary conversations and push through dangerous legislation aimed at being tough on crime, including lowering the age at which teens can be tried as adults.

“He has opened up Pandora’s box while completely failing to actually open the door to any substantive common-sense gun safety legislation,” Representative John Ray Clemmons, a Democrat from Nashville, said. “This is embarrassing. I’m embarrassed for him and the state of Tennessee.”

“Unsurprisingly, Governor Lee is bowing to the extremist fringe of his party in the parameters set forth for the special session,” the newly reinstated representative Mr. Jones said. “Tennesseans are demanding common-sense gun laws to protect kids, not more juvenile incarceration to jail kids.”

And yet.

I can’t believe I’m writing this, but I still have hope for this special session. The governor has seen Republican gun policy ravaging children in his own backyard. Knowing the political consequences of what he is doing, he has called this special session anyway. If he can change, any of these legislators can change. If he can demonstrate even the barest measure of courage, they, too, can show courage. It is not impossible to imagine. Very difficult, but not impossible.

Just since the legislative session ended on April 21, according to Senate Democrats, who are keeping track, 24 children here have lost their lives to gunfire, and 38 others have been injured. The time for political courage has never been greater.

In an ad for the nonprofit Voices for a Safer Tennessee, Katy Dieckhaus speaks about her daughter Evelyn, who was murdered in the Covenant School shooting, and calls on Tennessee legislators to come together during this special legislative session “to pass responsible firearm safety laws that will work toward protecting our children and their right to life.”

Fighting back tears, she asks the question our elected officials should be asking, the question we should all be asking: “What’s more important?”

Margaret Renkl, a contributing Opinion writer, is the author of the books “Graceland, at Last” and “Late Migrations.” Her next book, “The Comfort of Crows: A Backyard Year,” will be published in October.

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