‘Listen to the people’: Hundreds march into Tennessee State Capitol demanding gun reform after Nashville shooting

Mothers, children and fed-up voters waved placards and demanded action on Thursday outside the Tennessee State Capitol, and 200 protested inside the building, three days after yet another school shooter killed three adults and three 9-year-olds in Nashville. Rally attendees told Sheila Flynn how they hope their fear — and angry cries — will motivate lawmakers to act

Thursday 30 March 2023 23:26 BST
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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas

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Her high school principal in Florida was shot and killed by a disgruntled former teacher. Her cousin murdered his ex-fiancé with a gun before taking his own life. And now, this week, three adults and three children were mowed down at school by a heavily-armed former student in the same city where she’s raising her family.

That’s why 34-year-old mother Jen, who asked that only her first name be used, decided to attend her first rally on Thursday, joining hundreds of people clamoring for change on the grounds of the Tennessee Capitol — the same building where lawmakers in the staunchly pro-gun state continue to uphold laws that leave assault rifles in the hands of the public.

“Honestly, this is my first rally; I’ve never done this stuff before,” she told The Independent, holding a poster that featured a family Christmas photo from Republican Rep. Andy Ogles that shows his family holding weapons. “Our society does have a moral issue,” she wrote alongside the photo of the politician, who represents the district where former student Audrey Hale killed six at The Covenant School on Monday.

Students take over Tennessee Capitol in gun safety protest

“I felt compelled because I’m a mom, and I’ve dealt with gun violence directly,” she said, adding that the rash of school shootings is “a disgrace.”

Originally from Florida, the mother of two said that she is “not against people having guns — do what you want with your hunting rifle or whatever.

A 34-year-old Nashville mother holds up a poster featuring the Christmas card of Republican Rep. Andy Ogles, which depicts his family armed with weapons
A 34-year-old Nashville mother holds up a poster featuring the Christmas card of Republican Rep. Andy Ogles, which depicts his family armed with weapons (Sheila Flynn)

“But there’s no reason why we should have ARs, absolutely zero reason,” referring to the AR-15 assault rifle.

Protestors halted downtown traffic on Thursday morning as they made their way towards the Capitol, with about 200 making it into the rotunda outside the chambers for state representatives — shouting at lawmakers for red flag laws and other reforms. Outside, attendees chanted and waved signs picturing school shooting victims and emblazoned with enraged slogans.

Linda Herrell, who went to the rally with her 17-year-old daughter and friends, held a poster that read “BAN ASSAULT WEAPONS.”

“There absolutely needs to be pressure on the lawmakers, because especially our representatives from Tennessee have no interest in protecting any of their citizens from gun violence,” Ms Herrell told The Independent. “They're all NRA supporters, and they believe that assault weapons are fine, and our state legislators are actively trying to reduce the age of gun ownership. They want permitless carry. They want anybody who wants a gun to have a gun -- and it makes no sense. It's completely illogical.”

The 54-year-old grew up in a hunting community where “almost every family had guns,” she said.

“I've never felt like just having a gun made somebody violent — but people never had automatic weapons and assault weapons,” she said. “And at some level, it feels like — because our government is so divided now — that people ... especially on the far right, feel like if they give an inch, they'll lose all their access to having a gun.

“And so I think there's a lot of fear and mistrust that the government is trying to take over their ability to own a weapon,” she said. “But that's misguided, because what's happening is their children are being murdered at school, or at the grocery store, or when they go out to dinner; police officers are being attacked.”

She pointed out that responding officers on Monday quickly killed shooter Audrey Hale, ending the attack in less than 15 minutes as opposed to the tragic response last year in Uvalde, Texas -- when dozens of heavily armed officers in protective gear waited for over an hour to stop an attack that left 19 students and three teachers dead.

Linda Herrell, 45, holds a ‘BAN ASSAULT WEAPONS’ sign as she stands next to her 17-year-old daughter, Eleanor, and friends after a Thursday rally at the Tennessee State Capitol
Linda Herrell, 45, holds a ‘BAN ASSAULT WEAPONS’ sign as she stands next to her 17-year-old daughter, Eleanor, and friends after a Thursday rally at the Tennessee State Capitol (Sheila Flynn)

In Nashville, Ms Herrell, pointed out, officers “ran straight into harm's way — and they shouldn't have to do that. Their job is hard enough without having to run into situations like that and cope with that.”

American adamance about owning assault rifles, she said, is “fear-based... they’re just afraid that if they give any inch, that all their guns will go away.”

Her daughter, a high school junior, pleaded for lawmakers to pay attention and understand the visceral terror of students like herself.

“Kids are just fighting to be able to keep going to school and have their safety and not have to have the fear that one day they might die in a place that they really love and where their friends are,” Eleanor Herrell said.

Like many her age, she was angry on Thursday; her entire life has been marked by news of school shootings across the country, and this week one happened in her backyard.

S’Kaila Colbert, 28, was in high school when the Sandy Hook massacre happened -- and, more than a decade later, is clamoring for change to ensure her own children’s safety
S’Kaila Colbert, 28, was in high school when the Sandy Hook massacre happened -- and, more than a decade later, is clamoring for change to ensure her own children’s safety (Sheila Flynn)

Nothing concrete has been done by the adults in power who are charged with protecting America and its children.

“It’s important to have the vigils and have the prayers and have the support, but it’s also important to make change — because, I mean, it keeps happening,” the Nashville teen told The Independent. “You see it every day in the news. I mean, I’m wearing a Virginia shirt right now; there was a shooting there just a few months ago ... it just feels like every aspect of life is just taken up by this kind of stuff.”

S’Kaila Colbert, who works at a nonprofit helping women and children, was in high school at the time of the Sandy Hook massacre in 2012.

“That was over 10 years ago — and so, to still feel those same emotions and that same heartache attached with an issue that has been ongoing for years and years and years, I felt it very important to be here,” Ms Colbert said.

“I have a six-year-old, and I can’t imagine him hearing those alarms and him feeling that threat. And I want it to be something that he never experiences, as well as any other child. Children shouldn’t have to go through that. No one should have to go through that. Teachers shouldn’t have to experience that.”

She said: “I would love to see some police change, some gun reform — and I think, really, it just comes down to having a heart, to look at the safety and the well-being of the people of the state, of the children of this state, and listening to the people. We are asking for what we want. Today, we’ve made our voices heard and known. So I really think that it’s on policymakers now to heed the people, to listen to the people.”

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