Monday, May 27, 2024

Mary Joyce told herself she would be kind, just as she always had been. Say enough, but not too much, she reminded herself.

Surely, the members of the Tennessee General Assembly before her would be moved by her testimony at a special session dedicated to public safety.

A moderate conservative herself, she would tell them about the day in March when she dropped off her 9-year-old daughter at the Covenant School, a private Christian school tucked into one of the wealthiest neighborhoods in Nashville. She would remind them how an assailant wielding powerful rifles killed three of her daughter’s third-grade classmates, the head of the school, a beloved custodian, and a substitute teacher.

What she wanted now were modest measures that she believed could have prevented the violence and still be accepted by other Republicans.

Ms. Joyce and other Covenant parents felt they stood a better chance than anyone at cutting through the divisions on gun control. Among them were former Republican aides, gun owners, and lifelong conservatives who could afford to spend days at the legislature.

But the Tennessee legislature proved more hostile than the Covenant parents imagined. And when Ms. Joyce heard just one more gun rights supporter dismiss the parents’ concerns after days of restraint, her patience snapped.

The shooter at Covenant “hunted our children with a high-capacity rifle,” Ms. Joyce cried out, her voice cracking, as she confronted the gun rights supporter in the Capitol rotunda. He walked away, but not before suggesting she listen more closely to his arguments.

“I have held my composure,” she said, now openly angry despite the crowd that had gathered. “I have stayed calm. I have been silent and quiet and composed. And I am sick of it. Listen to me.”

A Day That Began Like Any Other

There was a birthday in third grade on the morning of March 27.

A group chat of mothers buzzed to life, as it usually did as school began. There were wishes for a happy day, before they began conferring over the proper shoe for a jazz performance.

Until one mother interrupted: There was an active shooter at Covenant.

Gun violence at American schools is increasingly common: A gun has been wielded or fired on school property at least 344 times this year, according to the K-12 School Shooting Database.

Safety was one of the reasons many of the Covenant parents were paying as much as $16,500 in tuition. That, along with its small classes, its way of teaching faith through “timeless truths,” and the affinity of Dr. Katherine Koonce, the head of school, for children who needed educational accommodations, made it worth the investment.

“Life gets ugly so fast — just let them be little for a little bit,” said Sarah Shoop Neumann, 38, whose oldest son, Noah, is now in kindergarten.

Dr. Koonce once ordered an intensive training for staff that involved firing blank rounds in the building, toughening security even further after the shooting at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, that killed 19 students and two teachers last year. Her husband would often walk her to her office in the morning and check every door to make sure it was locked.

By 10:13 a.m. that Monday in March, a pair of glass doors had been shattered by bullets.

Those inside, hearing an alarm, thought it was a fire drill, not realizing it had been set off by smoke from gunfire. Three 9-year-old children would not make it back to their classroom. Dr. Koonce and two other staff members would also be killed.

To fully understand the minutes before officers killed the assailant, parents had to piece together the plain-spoken memories of their children.

It was loud. It smelled bad. It was a person with a really mean face.

I was scared. I was quiet. I was brave.

Ms. Joyce’s daughter would tell her that it was hard to not make a sound, to be curled tight and still like a box when the barrel of a gun poked through the window in the door of her third-grade classroom.

As officers guided students out to safety, they told the children not to look behind them. But children cannot help but look, and at least a couple saw a glimpse, as they would later say, of a friend who had fainted.

Across Nashville, panicked parents jumped into cars with strangers, careened through red lights, and prayed that their children were not in the ambulances driving in the opposite direction.

“I was a mad man,” said Brent Leatherwood, recalling how he had sped toward the school, consumed by the thought that at least one of his three children could be dead.

Mr. Leatherwood broke down, he said, when, after hours of knowing only that his two daughters were safe, he finally caught sight of his son getting off a bus.

“There was a stillness and a fear and a sense of loss,” Mr. Leatherwood said months later. “But maybe almost the beginnings of, we’re really a community now.”

After the swift police response, it soon became apparent that there had been little in Tennessee law to stop the assailant, who was being treated for an emotional disorder that had caused alarm among family members, from legally purchasing seven firearms.

Even to several Covenant parents who owned guns, or once did, it was clear that preventing such situations was imperative.

Not all of the Covenant parents were conservative. But many of them grew up involved in Republican politics and were at ease around guns. Ms. Neumann, barred as a child from playing with toy guns as a way to instill respect for weapons, enjoyed shooting clay pigeons well past college. Mr. Leatherwood is a former executive director of the state Republican Party who owns seven firearms, with two pistols locked in his truck.

Just as important, as parents of survivors, they could be a public voice for the parents whose children died.

Mr. Leatherwood, the leader of the public policy arm of the Southern Baptist Convention, now used his platform to argue that millions of Southern Baptists should broaden their defense of life — the basis for opposing abortion — to include protecting against gun violence.

He acknowledged that he had not always done so, recalling an instance where a pastor had described helping families recover from gun violence.

“Did that cause me to go out and say, you know what, this pastor — we need to be working with policymakers, so he doesn’t have to deal with that kind of stuff?” Mr. Leatherwood said. “I didn’t do that.”

“But,” he added, “I’m resolved to do something about it now.”

For other parents, their determination hardened when the largely white Republican majority expelled two Black Democrats who led a gun control protest on the Tennessee House floor in the tumultuous days after the shooting.

“If I wouldn’t have gone and seen that and saw — I just, I don’t know that I would have realized what a need there was to speak,” Ms. Neumann said.

That led her to connect with other parents, including Ms. Joyce, Melissa Alexander, a Republican and mother of a fourth grader, and Nick Hansen, a father of two students, and his wife, Becky.

“I’m asking my kid to be brave by showing up to school,” Ms. Hansen said of her son, now a kindergartner. “I have to show him that I will also be brave by showing up and doing something.”

An Early Test of Resolve

When Gov. Bill Lee, a Republican, announced plans for a special session on public safety in August, that offered the chance to debate one of the parents’ highest priorities — a law that would allow judges to temporarily remove weapons from people deemed to be a threat to themselves or others.

Polls show widespread, bipartisan support in Tennessee for such a restriction. But before the session even began, Republicans made clear that proposal stood no chance.

The parents soon shifted their focus to different measures: one to shield the autopsies of children from public records’ releases without parental permission, a response to fears that the young victims’ autopsy reports would be published; another to require schools to re-evaluate their fire drill procedures, in case another shooter set off an alarm.

Abby McLean, a mother of three Covenant students, arrived for the special session after recovering from a bout of the coronavirus. Within an hour, she was deputized to testify against a Republican proposal to allow people with enhanced carry permits to take handguns onto school campuses.

The other mothers, having already testified, coached Ms. McLean, 38, typically energetic and…

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