NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Deeply divided Tennessee lawmakers returned to the state Capitol Monday, kicking off a special session that many hoped would address the state's relaxed gun laws but instead quickly devolved into bitter fighting over procedural rules and limits on public access into the building.
Months prior, Republican Gov. Bill Lee called the session in the wake of a shooter opening fire at a Nashville elementary school and killing six people, including three children.
Yet after hundreds of community organizers, families, protesters and many more spent months asking lawmakers to consider passing gun control measures in response to the shooting, the GOP-dominated Statehouse is unexpected to do so.
Early into the floor session, a Republican senator made a pass at ending the special session immediately before any bills were officially taken up — a move typically unheard of during regular sessions. Sen. Janice Bowling was told she needed to file her request in a resolution and try again.
Over in the House, an already split chamber appeared to further fracture. The Republican supermajority attempted to jam through new rules that would place strict penalties on lawmakers deemed out of order that included banning a member from speaking on the House floor for the rest of the year if they go off-topic during debate or if they impugn the reputation of another member.
“We did not come up here for this special session to limit speech of the members of this body,” said Democratic Rep. Jason Powell. “We came up here to tackle a problem -– or at least some of thought we were — but here we are, starting off to limit the rules of our democracy.”
Democratic lawmakers also raised concerns about public access, saying fewer people were allowed into areas outside the chambers and in House and Senate galleries.
While protesters flocked to the Capitol, the building was noticeably more blocked off by state troopers who limited people from milling about in the public areas of the building ahead of Monday’s floor sessions. Yet when lawmakers began trickling in, many protesters began screaming and chanting -- urging lawmakers to pass gun control and to hear their voices.
Republican leaders have focused on advancing proposals that would toughen penalties for violent criminals, arguing that placing limitations on weapons would do very little to deter those who want to cause harm. Other GOP members have introduced proposals to boost mental health resources and school security measures.
On March 27, a 27-year-old shooter opened fire at a Nashville Christian elementary school and killed six people, including three young students. The shooting contributed to a record pace for mass killings in the U.S. this year and renewed scrutiny over Tennessee's relaxed gun laws.
Gov. Lee initially pushed lawmakers to pass legislation that would temporarily remove guns from people showing signs of potentially violent behavior. But despite holding hundreds of meetings with lawmakers and policy experts over the summer, Lee has since conceded that he didn't have the necessary sponsors to introduce the proposal for the special session.
Bowling, a Tullahoma Republican, quickly moved to adjourn the session Monday, arguing it wasn't addressing a “danger to public safety,” but “may lessen or abridge the rights of every Tennessean.”
“People in my district have spoken loudly on this issue, and the overwhelming consensus is that we face no emergency or immediate danger," Bowling said. "And I must be honest with this chamber, I echo their sentiments.”
Bowling was told she would need to formally file a resolution.
Earlier Monday, at a news conference with Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, actor Melissa Joan Hart detailed how she helped a class of kindergartners fleeing The Covenant School shooting across a highway.
Hart said that she had moved to Nashville from Connecticut and that her children had attended a school near Sandy Hook Elementary when 26 children were shot and killed there in 2012. She has said her children attend a school next to the private Christian Covenant School.
“I’m standing here before you today, 11 years later, almost a thousand miles away from Fairfield County (in Connecticut). And yet we’re having the same conversation that we did on December 14, 2012, and every day since. Our cries aren’t being heard, and our kids are bearing the burden,” Hart said.
Some opposing changes to gun laws also were holding demonstrations Monday.
Britt Winston was among the speakers at a news conference held by the DC Project-Women for Gun Rights along with her husband, Taylor Winston, a survivor of the 2017 Las Vegas concert shooting that killed 58 people. He has been praised for helping transport victims to the hospital.
“Momma bears out there listening: I urge you, don’t fall for it. Don’t fall for it. Don’t do it,” said Britt Winston. “Don’t let them take your very valid feelings of fear – those emotions are real — don’t let them twist them into legislation that does more harm than good in protecting our children.”
There also was a brief appearance of members of the Proud Boys, the neo-fascist group of self-described “Western chauvinists." The group unfurled their flag while pro-gun control supporters held a prayer outside the Tennessee Capitol before leaving.
State troopers had a heavy presence through the Capitol complex. On Monday afternoon, officials with the Tennessee Highway Patrol and the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation told Senate Republicans that they were not aware of any threats to public safety.