Activists forming human chain in Nashville on Covenant school shooting anniversary

Tennessee advocates for gun safety are forming a 3-mile human chain in Nashville on the anniversary of last year's deadly Covenant School shooting

Travis Loller,Jonathan Mattise
Wednesday 27 March 2024 12:03 GMT

When a former student killed three 9-year-old children and three adults at the Covenant School in Nashville, a group of Tennessee moms decided they had to do something.

They formed Voices for a Safer Tennessee and in days had begun planning a 3-mile (4.83-kilometer) human chain from the children’s hospital at Vanderbilt University, where shooting victims were taken after last year's violence, to the state Capitol.

“We didn’t know when we put this together at first if 10 people would show up or 500,” said Nicole Smith, vice chair of the Voices for a Safer Tennessee board. As it turned out, 10,000 people participated in Linking Arms for Change. On Wednesday, the one-year anniversary of the Covenant shooting, they are again linking arms and expecting an even larger turnout.

“We knew that our community was yearning for a way to come together, yearning for a way to show their support," Smith said of their first event. "And I think at the end of the day, we had faith that it would happen.”

It is part of a surge of advocacy around gun violence. A group of Covenant moms have become Capitol regulars. Over the summer, ahead of a special session on school safety, members of their group prayed on the Capitol steps every day for 40 days.

The hope is to pressure the Republican-controlled state legislature to move on issues like temporarily removing firearms from anyone deemed to be a threat to themselves or others.

Across the country, the families of many victims have become strong advocates for gun safety, often sharing emotionally gutting stories of tragedy. But their efforts have met with mixed results as the spate of mass killings continues. Democratic-led states have largely tightened firearm restrictions, while Republican-led ones have loosened them.

So far, Tennessee's GOP lawmakers have balked at almost every bill that would limit who can access a gun, shutting down proposals on the topic by Democrats — and even one by the Republican governor — during regular annual sessions and a special session inspired by the Covenant shooting.

Republicans are advancing one measure that would commit someone to a treatment facility if they are found incompetent to stand trial on certain criminal charges, and would make it a misdemeanor for them to have a gun.

And lawmakers have been on board with other changes backed by some Covenant parents that don’t directly address guns, including a bill they passed to require that public and private schools determine why a fire alarm went off before evacuating children from classrooms. Additionally, there are multiple bills advancing that would make it a felony for someone to threaten mass violence, including on school property or at a school function.

At the same time, Republicans have forged ahead on proposals to expand gun access and protect manufacturers.

Last year, they passed a law bolstering protections against lawsuits for gun and ammunition dealers, manufacturers and sellers. This year, they are one Senate vote away from allowing private schools with pre-kindergarten classes to have guns on campus. They have also advanced an amendment to the Tennessee Constitution’s “right to keep, bear, and wear arms" that would broaden the right beyond defense and delete a section giving lawmakers the ability “to regulate the wearing of arms with a view to prevent crime.”

Still, Smith said they are not deterred. Their polling suggests most Tennesseans support the moderate gun laws they are proposing, like universal background checks. They also know that advocacy like this is a marathon, not a sprint. In the year since the shooting, their coalition has only grown stronger. They now have around 25,000 members representing every one of Tennessee's 95 counties, Smith said.

“We know that our community is still grieving," she said. "We know that the children and families who lost loved ones and those who are survivors are still grieving. But we know that they are also full of hope that we can create a safer Tennessee.”

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