Sep 11, 2023

Live updates: TN legislature special session addresses safety, guns

Tennessee lawmakers returned to the state Capitol today to start a special session focused on public safety and mental health.

Gov. Bill Lee called the General Assembly back to work in the wake of the Covenant School shooting in March, which left six people dead. All summer, groups have weighed in on the issue, with many urging the governor and lawmakers to act.

Follow along for updates throughout the day as Tennesseans rally for change.

After more than an hour of debate, House members adopted new rules that will bar colleagues they deem unruly from participating in discussion. The rules were adopted in a party-line vote of 73 to 23.

“These rules provide equality for 99 members who represent 7 million Tennesseans,” Rep. Gino Bulso, R-Brentwood, argued, saying the chamber’s legislative procedure manual is based on that of Thomas Jefferson.

“If a member cannot conduct the member's self with civility, they ought to sit down,” he said.

Rep. Justin Pearson, D-Memphis, asked for a moment of silence to remember victims of gun violence.

“Let this special session still be our rallying call to end gun violence, to choose people over profits and to lift up the voices of people who can’t speak anymore,” Pearson said.

Rep. Bryan Richey, R-Maryville, proposed a resolution to adjourn the special session. Only six members voted to suspend the rules to allow it to be considered.

The session adjourned at 5:43 p.m.

— Vivian Jones, The Tennessean

The House of Representatives and the Senate gaveled in for business at 4 p.m. as protestors outside could be heard inside the chambers shouting, “Whose house? Our house!”

Spectator galleries in the east side of the House Chamber were full of demonstrators, while the west side gallery was occupied primarily by press and lobbyists. Galleries in the Senate were about half full.

During the Senate session, Sen. Janice Bowling, R-Manchester, made a motion to adjourn the special session completely, arguing that there is no emergency need for calling lawmakers back. The special session, itself, poses a security threat, she said, citing a Metro Nashville Police Department advisory requesting downtown employees to work remotely when possible this week.

However, during a Senate Republican Caucus meeting less than an hour before session began, which Bowling attended, Tennessee Highway Patrol Col. Matt Perry said the agency was not aware of any security threats, and several press events and rallies had taken place Monday without incident. Bowling pledged to return Tuesday with a formal resolution to end the proceedings.

The Senate adjourned about 20 minutes after it began.

Meanwhile, House members almost immediately began debating proposed new rules to govern the special session proceedings, which would bar members from being called on to speak if they cause “a material disruption of legislative business,” fail to stay on topic, or “impugn the reputation” of another member.

Members would also be prohibited from using “voice or noise amplification devices,” wearing or possessing a microphone or using any electronic device that impairs decorum.

House Majority Leader William Lamberth, R-Portland, and House Majority Caucus WHIP Johnny Garret, R-Goodlettsville, proposed the changes to ensure that every member's voice is heard. During the debate, objecting democrats repeatedly ran out of time and were cut off.

“There was an article written called, ‘Is Tennessee a Democracy?’ I think we’re getting a very clear answer today that it is not,” said Rep. Justin Pearson, D-Memphis. He argued that the proposed rules would limit free speech.

Several democrats argued stringently against the new rules, saying they would cause constituents in whole districts to be silenced and lack due process, giving the House speaker too much arbitrary power to deem a member out of order.

“Can people still bring guns into committee rooms?” Rep. Jason Powell, D-Nashville asked.

Firearms are allowed to be carried in the Cordell Hull State Legislative Office Building, where committee rooms are located.

As crowds in the galleries quietly applauded arguments against the proposed rules, House Speaker Cameron Sexton directed them to quiet down multiple times.

“This is your final warning,” Sexton said. “Next time you will be removed.”

— Vivian Jones, The Tennessean

As the session rang in at 4 p.m., the few demonstrators allowed in the halls of the Capitol could be found at the far end of the hallway, kept at a distance by a wall of state troopers far away from the chamber.

Tennessee Highway Patrol said this was to allow movement off the elevators, but also confirmed that there were no plans to allow demonstrators further into the halls — where they would normally be — despite the legislators having taken their seats in the chambers.

Citizens have been allowed to walk the halls of the capitol at almost any other time during legislative session, including demonstrations in April following the mass shooting at The Covenant School and the expulsion of three sitting House members that followed.

That was not the case Monday. Demonstrators were cordoned off by ropes, reducing allowable capacity to nearly a tenth of what was seen in April.

The few demonstrators confined to the tight spaces shouted raucous boos and chants at passing officials as they entered the chambers.

— Angele Latham, The Tennessean

Want to watch the special session live? Visit to tune in. The livestream links will be available once each session starts. Sometimes the sessions start late, so be patient and refresh the page until the link pops up.

A daily schedule for the special session can be found at

You can also follow our Twitter list of Tennessean reporters covering the special session.

Nashville Mayor John Cooper said Monday that he hopes the special session results in "common sense gun violence legislation.

"After the tragic murders at The Covenant School, now is the moment for state lawmakers to turn statements of sympathy and prayers into action and leadership," Cooper said in a press release. He urged legislators to listen to the residents of "this great state."

Sensible reforms can prevent senseless killings, Cooper said, noting that he believes that while the constitutional rights of law-abiding citizens should be preserved, legislators must also take action to keep communities safe.

"Gun violence does not have partisan boundaries so political party affiliation should not dictate how we approach gun law reforms," he said.

— Diana Leyva, The Tennessean

Expelled, reappointed and re-elected Rep. Justin Pearson was sworn into office for the third time at the State Capitol Monday afternoon, surrounded by his family and a group of about 50 supporters who traveled with him from Memphis.

“We did it again!” he declared, after taking the oath.

Pearson wore a bright dashiki for the ceremony. Earlier this year, he was scolded by members of the Republican caucus on House dress code policies after he wore one on the House floor. Pearson was joined by his fiancé, Oceana Gillian, who was draped in the Tennessee flag.

“This has been a tough journey,” she said before reading a portion of Psalm 27, which she said has sustained the couple through the ordeal of the expulsions.

Before Pearson took the oath, the crowd sang “This Little Light of Mine” and “Ain't Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me 'Round.”

Chris Wade, himself a shooting victim, spoke about the long-reaching consequences, before singing “Walk With Me, Lord.”

Pearson’s parents, Kimberly Owens Pearson and the Rev. Dr. James Pearson, also attended the ceremony.

“My son stood up and asked them to do something,” Kimberly Owens Pearson said. “That took courage, and I am so proud of my son… Friends, family members gunned down, and — nothing, and we are begging—are you serious?”

After taking the oath, Pearson began leading the crowd in a chant of “protect kids, not guns.”

Equity Alliance co-founder Tequila Johnson called for lawmakers to listen to the people — or face election challenges.

“If they're not going to be able to make change, there is an election coming up,” Johnson said. “[Incumbents] do not represent the voices of the people, who are overwhelmingly saying we want common sense gun reform.”

Many democratic members of the House and Senate were present, along with a crowd of supporters from Nashville and Memphis.

— Vivian Jones, The Tennessean

Crowds outside the legislative chamber doors will be significantly smaller than in the spring. Tennessee Highway Patrol cordoned off large swaths of the Capitol’s second floor.

House Democratic Caucus Chair, John Ray Clemmons, criticized the move to reduce public access, which also includes shutting off one side of the public gallery for legislative staff, lobbyists and media.

“Our Republican colleagues often refer to this as the ‘People’s House,’ but it turns out they don’t want people in the House at all. Rather than allow Tennesseans inside their own State Capitol, they have cordoned off most of the rotunda and half the gallery for special interests,” Clemmons said. “It gives you a pretty good idea who the supermajority actually represents and whose business they’re doing up here during this special session.”

— Melissa Brown, The Tennessean

A large gathering of demonstrators, including Moms Demand Action, the Equity Alliance and more marched from the First Baptist Church, Capitol Hill to the Capitol with Rep. Justin Pearson at the helm.

Demonstrators in the march carried numerous signs supporting gun legislation and reform, as well as showing their support for the Tennessee Three as they escorted Pearson to the Capitol for his swearing in.

Pearson was expelled in April, reappointed on an interim basis and reelected earlier this month.

The massive line was led by a troupe of musicians playing a steady, rousing rhythm, akin to a heartbeat, as they moved to climb the many steps into the Capitol.

Demonstrators who were not attending Pearson’s swearing in moved into the Capitol halls, waiting for the session.

On one of the few tables in the halls, Macy Fluharty, a member of the Tennessee Equality Project, placed numerous memorial cards and battery-operated tea candles. Each one with handwritten-names of victims of gun violence in Tennessee, along with the text “Remembering with Love.”

“These are all Tennesseans who have passed away due to gun violence” she said.

“I think it’s important to remember people as more than a statistic of gun death,” she said. “These are lives that were shortened and they should be remembered, especially in a time like this.”

— Angele Latham, The Tennessean

Ahead of the session gaveling in, House leadership circulated proposed new rules of order for the special session, some of which appear to be aimed at preventing disruptions like the gun-control protest led by Reps. Justin Jones, D-Nashville, Justin Pearson, D-Memphis, and Gloria Johnson, D-Knoxville, from the House floor in April.

Under the proposed rules, members would be prohibited from using “voice or noise amplification devices,” (like a bullhorn), wearing or possessing a microphone during official proceedings, and using any electronic device “that impairs decorum.”

Members could also face not being called on to speak if they cause “a material disruption of legislative business,” fail to stay on topic, or “impugn the reputation” of another member of the House.

Disrupting House proceedings could result in an unruly member being barred from speaking for three days (for a first offense) to “the remainder of the annual session” (for a third offense).

During debate, any member whose comments “fail to strictly conform to the question,” would forfeit the rest of their time on that bill. Repeated off-topic comments on the same legislative day could result in that member being barred from debate for the rest of the day, or longer.

Members determined disorderly or impugning another member would still be allowed to vote, but further disciplinary measures “including censure or expulsion” would also still be on the table.

“Which is shocking to think that an entire district would be silenced — that’s 70,000 people being effectively silenced by the discretion of one person in the speaker’s chair. That’s concerning,” said House Democratic Caucus Chair John Ray Clemmons, D-Nashville. ”I have never seen rules like these proposed in the United States of America.”

The House will consider the proposed rules it convenes at 4 p.m. CT.

— Vivian Jones and Angele Latham, The Tennessean

Katy Dieckhaus, the mother of Covenant victim Evelyn Dieckhaus, emotionally addressed a group of citizen advocates at the Belcourt Theater with Voices for a Safer Tennessee.

She and her husband Mike began meeting with lawmakers over the summer to prioritize conversations over the “noise” that can takeover the debate.

“I understand that feeling of wanting to scream, but we have to work together and we have to not be fearful of these extreme noises,” Dieckhaus said. “So many people want to see change, and so many people deserve respect.”

She urged the crowd to continue advocating for gun safety, showing a picture of Evelyn to the crowd.

“We miss her every second of every day,” Dieckhaus said. “We don’t want other people to go through this.”

— Melissa Brown, The Tennessean

On the ground:'We don’t want other people to go through this': Tennessee advocates push for gun reform as lawmakers return

Around 200 people gathered across town at the Belcourt Theater for a legislative briefing held by Voices for a Safer Tennessee, a nonpartisan advocacy group founded in the wake of the Covenant shooting. The group recently announced a high-powered board of directors that includes former Republican U.S. Sen. Bill Frist.

The group has amassed 20,000 supporters, many of whom do not have political experience or experience following legislation.

A panel cautioned participants that major legislative changes may not come out of the special session, but they were encouraged Gov. Bill Lee did call the session and a statewide conversation is happening.

“The long game is very important,” lobbyist Brian Bivens told the crowd.

— Melissa Brown, The Tennessean

In anticipation of crowds this week, there’s a noticeably larger presence of State Troopers at the Capitol complex and Cordell Hull Legislative Office Building.

Patrols are stationed inside most entrances to the Capitol, and there are four troopers posted in the tunnel connecting the two buildings – where there is usually only one. At noon, at least 18 troopers could be seen posted on the first and second floors of the Capitol, at entrances and the rotunda.

Pathways to allow traffic flow are cordoned off on the first and second floors, to allow members and staff to move freely from elevators to chambers in a wide avenue. In April, when protestors filled the Capitol outside the House and Senate chambers, troopers lined up to open a path through the crowd to allow lawmakers to pass to enter and exit the chambers.

There’s significantly less room for the crowds to pack in this time around.

— Vivian Jones, The Tennessean

As demonstrations continued outside the Capitol, a small debate unfolded between a Covenant mom and members of the far-right Proud Boys.

Sarah Shoop Neumann, a mother of a Covenant School student who has become outspoken in pushing for gun reform since March, debated with the masked men after one told her to “thank God for the Covenant (shooting).”

“What could we have done? What is your solution to these shootings?” she asked.

“The cops should have gone in,” the man said. “Isn’t this the one where the cops wouldn’t go in?”

“That’s Uvalde!” Neumann said, as he waved dismissively. “Do you even know where you are?”

— Angele Latham, The Tennessean

A crowd of nearly 50 packed into the small press room in the Cordell Hull Legislative Office Building, and more spilled outside into the hall, as survivors of gun violence condemned bills that would send 16-year-old defendants to adult court and allow teachers to carry guns.

The group, organized by Moms Demand Action, called for preventative legislation.

Anna Caudill, a close friend of head of Covenant School Katherine Koonce, who was killed during the shooting in March, said lawmakers are “only as hamstrung as they want to be” by the Second Amendment.

“I’m really concerned about this special session. Punishing our children for guns being the No. 1 killer of children is not the right answer,” she said.

“It won't end until Tennessee lawmakers value the sanctity of children's holy lives, created in God's own image, more than they value the weapons of war,” Caudill said. “A well regulated militia doesn't murder children at school.”

Shaundelle Brooks, the mother of Akilah Dasilva, who was shot and killed at an Antioch Waffle House in 2018, described how each one of her children have since also been a victim of gun violence: another son was shot in the head in June and another child had to take cover during the Covenant shooting.

“This is not what I want to do, but it’s what I have to do,” Brooks said. “I am tired and weary, but still full of anger. Myself and so many other survivors across Tennessee have found a way to keep going, keep pushing and keep advocating. I will never stop fighting for my children. But lawmakers: it’s time for you to start fighting.”

Organizer Carol Buckley Fraizer said Gov. Bill Lee’s proclamation outlining parameters for the session “not only falls immensely short,” but also enabled proposals to push for teachers to be armed, something she called “callous, irresponsible, and dangerous.”

Actress Melissa Joan Hart recalled helping a kindergarten class from the Covenant School escape to safety.

“We aren’t asking you to take guns out of the hands of law abiding citizens, we are asking you to take steps toward keeping them out of the hands of those who are deemed dangerous domestic abusers, people with criminal records, people experiencing mental health crisis,” she said, her voice filled with emotion. “Our cries aren’t being heard, and our kids are hearing the burden.”

Outside the press room, a memorial honoring the lives of people killed by guns in Tennessee is set up along a hallway where lawmakers walk by on their way to the state Capitol. Cards displayed the names and ages of victims, alongside a frameless candle, which set a somber tone in the dim hallway.

— Vivian Jones, The Tennessean

Hours ahead of the official kickoff of the special legislative session, several members of legislative leadership —including House Speaker Cameron Sexton, R-Crossville, Lt. Gov. Randy McNally, R-Oak Ridge, House Majority Leader William Lamberth, R-Portland, House Majority Caucus Chairman Jeremy Faison, R-Cosby, and House Minority Caucus Chairman John Ray Clemmons, D-Nashville — started the day at the Future Farmers of America Ham Breakfast at the Tennessee State Fair in Lebanon.Gov. Bill Lee kicked off the event with remarks that made no mention of the legislature’s business or efforts to increase public safety.

While rumors are swirling around the Capitol that the Senate may adjourn its business on Monday, multiple members told the Tennessean that they do not think that will happen.

Meanwhile, Sexton confirmed that public access to the Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey Tunnel between the Cordell Hull Legislative Office Building and the state Capitol will be closed for 30 minutes prior to session beginning, and 30 minutes after adjournment, for safety reasons.

Decisions on access for that tunnel entrance are made by legislative leadership, but other entrances to the Capitol are controlled by the Governor’s office, Sexton said. The decision to temporarily close the tunnel was made in coordination with the Tennessee Department of Safety and the Tennessee Highway Patrol.

“Last time what happened was it became an unsafe environment,” Sexton said, of the tunnel. “It is about safety and how many people can safely be in the building at one time.”

Asked whether he feels closing the tunnel will limit public access, he noted that other entrances will remain open.

“I don’t know how we’re limiting it if we’re still allowing them to come in,” he said.

Sexton said he is prepared to order House galleries cleared, as is typical procedure when of spectators become unruly or disruptive during House session.

“That’s on the people who want to attend,” he said. “We’ll see.”

— Vivian Jones, The Tennessean

A group of Covenant parents endorsed 10 bills ahead of the special session through the Covenant Families Action Fund, a 501(c)4 organization advocating for gun safety reform.

Among the bills is HB 7100 by Rep. Bob Freeman, D-Nashville, to establish a temporary transfer law to temporarily block a dangerous person from accessing firearms. The effort is unlikely to pass without Republican support, and GOP lawmakers have staunchly refused to do so. The Action Fund also endorsed HB 7075 from Freeman, which requires anyone purchasing a gun or applying for a handgun permit to sign an affidavit swearing to secure the gun when not carrying it.

The group endorses HB 7002, 7007 and 7012, from House Majority Leader William Lamberth, R-Portland. Lamberth’s bills require certain school safety procedures, block public access to autopsy reports of minor crime victims and provide free firearm locks to Tennesseans, in addition to introduce tax exemptions on gun safes and other safety devices.

Two bills from interim Rep. Anthony Davis and Sen. Jeff Yarbro, both Nashville Democrats, also received their stamp of approval. The two seek to require the Tennessee Bureau of Investigations to enter criminal records into background check databases within 30 days of receiving the records, in HB 7037. Their second bill, HB 7047, would create a felony offense for road rage incidents involving firearms.

Other bills include establishing a voluntary "do not sell” firearms list, exempt people from civil damages arising from a gun stolen from a secured vehicle and creating a grant program to fund school alarm systems.

The Action Fund criticized the mental health provisions that have been introduced so far.

“We are disappointed in the lack of resources going to mental health needs in Tennessee,” said Sarah Shoop Neumann, parent of a Covenant School student, “If we want to improve the mental health of Tennesseans we have to invest in solving the root of the problem itself.”

— Melissa Brown, The Tennessean

Read more about the filed bills here:Special session in Tennessee on public safety, guns: See the bills introduced so far

About a dozen Proud Boys, a far-right extremist group, walked to the Capitol on Monday dressed in their standard black shirts and yellow accessories carrying flags.

The group looked on as a prayer vigil, with attendees hand in hand, wrapped around the Capitol. They then unfurled a yellow banner near the Capitol that said "Smashville" across the front.

— Kirsten Fiscus, The Tennessean

An interdenominational set of three clergy opened a gathering outside the Capitol in prayer and explicitly condemned gun violence and prayed for gun reform.

“Remember for whom you came,” the Rev. Francisco Garcia said, alluding to victims and survivors of gun violence.

Similarly, the Rev. Dahron Johnson called out guns for killing members of the community “too often and too soon.”

And the Rev. Stephen Hardy said, “We won’t let ignorance prevail."

After, the crowd processed to the Capitol signing “This Little Light.” The Rev. Ingrid McIntyre, one of the organizers of the vigil, reminded attendees at the beginning of a similar prayer event months ago, the Moral Monday March led by the Rev. William Barber II.

When participants reached the Capitol, they filed around the perimeter and formed a chain. The group then sent prayer throughout the chain like an electric current. When one person prayed, either aloud or quietly on their own, they squeezed the hand of the person next to them to signal and send the prayer along.

— Liam Adams, The Tennessean

To usher in the special session on a contemplative note, hundreds gathered at outside the state Capitol for a prayer vigil. Among the crowd were clergy and lay leaders, community members wearing red “Moms Demand Action” shirts, and medical professionals donning their garb.

Attendees carried signs saying “lax laws lack sense,” “it’s the guns” and “love your neighbor regulate guns."

— Liam Adams, The Tennessean

Alice Rolli has mixed feelings about the legislation filed ahead of the special session.

On one hand, Rolli applauded the bills filed to improve access and availability of mental health services as well as safe gun storage, but said the legislature has fallen short on gun access in certain circumstances.

"Like many Tennesseans, I’m disappointed we are not yet considering an extreme risk option," she said in a statement. "If we have figured out a way to temporarily separate a parent experiencing a mental health crisis or drug addiction from their child, it seems to me we ought to be able to figure out a way to temporarily separate an individual experiencing a mental health crisis or drug addiction from their firearms."

— Kirsten Fiscus, The Tennessean

All eyes could be on the Senate this week.

Although more than 100 pieces of legislation have been introduced so far in the House, only 11 bills have both a House and Senate sponsors, as of Monday morning.

This could be a sign the Senate intends to keep the session more focused.

A proposed Senate calendar released last week shows an 8:30 a.m. CT floor session on Tuesday, then back-to-back committee meetings through Wednesday. Final votes could occur at a morning floor session on Thursday.

Outside of the floor session today at 4 p.m. CT to begin the special session, the House has not posted its proposed schedule for the week.

— Duane W. Gang, The Tennessean

On the ground:Read more about the filed bills here:The legislation:How the session works:AnalysisAnalysisOn the ground: