Covenant parents prepare for a prolonged effort towards gun reform as victories remain scarce

Mary Joyce had no idea that political advocacy would become a significant part of her life when she began showing up at the Tennessee Capitol last year to push lawmakers for gun safety reforms.

Advocates in Tennessee, including the mother of a Covenant School student, are determined to push for significant gun safety reforms despite feeling let down by the state’s General Assembly, which is dominated by Republicans. The call for reforms gained momentum after a tragic incident last spring in which a shooter killed three 9-year-olds and three adult staff members at Covenant. Despite the lack of progress, these advocates remain steadfast in their efforts to effect meaningful change.

Gun violence continues to be a pressing issue in Tennessee, as emphasized by the advocates. Despite the recent shooting, the state’s most recent data shows that firearms remain the primary cause of death for children in Tennessee, with a rate that is 36% higher than the national average. The urgency to address this problem persists, especially with the occurrence of four teenagers being shot in just five days in the Nashville area in late May. Shockingly, one-third of all homicide victims in Nashville this year were minors, and teenagers are often the ones arrested for these shootings.

Joyce had high hopes for the 2023 special session, believing that the gun safety lobby formed by the Covenant families would attend and witness significant progress towards achieving their goals. However, a year later, that expectation remained unfulfilled.

Joyce recalls thinking, “They will definitely listen to us.” However, it was a harsh realization for all of them to realize the enormity of the battle they were facing.

Gun safety groups and advocates were left disappointed as the legislative dysfunction became increasingly apparent during the session, despite their efforts to push for significant legislation. For Joyce, there was no defining moment that sparked her realization, but rather it was after the special session that she understood the need for continued involvement in advocacy efforts. It became clear to her that the political realities in Tennessee required ongoing commitment and persistence.

Joyce expressed that advocacy has provided her with a sense of control and power over the future of her children.

‘This devil entered their school’: The survivors of Covenant School recall the terrifying experience of hiding from the Nashville school shooter. Even months later, the memories continue to haunt them, causing nightmares and anxiety.

Friendships forged, next steps planned

As she began advocating for gun reform in Tennessee, Sarah Shoop Neumann, a fellow Covenant parent, was cautioned about the challenging battle ahead.

Through long days spent at the Capitol, Neumann formed a close friendship with Shaundelle Brooks, a Democratic House candidate. Despite always voting for Republican and independent candidates, Neumann’s perspective was shifted by Brooks’ fight for gun reform. Brooks was compelled to take action after her own son, Akilah DaSilva, was tragically killed in a mass shooting at a Nashville Waffle House in 2018.

After the death of her son, Brooks made a promise to fight for justice, which has been the driving force behind her advocacy efforts, as DaSilva noted.

She declared, “I will hold accountable all the people who did this to him and ensure that this kind of tragedy never befalls another family.”

Neumann found a friend in Rep. Justin Pearson, who hails from Memphis and is a member of the Democratic Party.

Neumann shared that her friendship with Pearson and Brooks has given her a new perspective on their tireless endeavors in fighting gun violence in Tennessee and across the country. Furthermore, her conversations with Black leaders have enlightened her on the potential negative consequences of implementing a “red flag” law, which aims to prevent individuals deemed a danger to themselves or others from possessing firearms.

Neumann shared that when done properly, this approach can be beneficial. However, if not executed carefully, it can lead to a higher risk of unnecessary searches of homes belonging to people of color.

Neumann is contemplating participating in the United Nations-hosted international Conference on Disarmament in Geneva, Switzerland this summer. Additionally, she is collaborating with her colleagues from the grassroots organization Covenant Families for Brighter Tomorrows to determine their course of action. At present, they are uncertain whether to disband the group or continue with their efforts.

Neumann intends to continue her efforts of meeting with lawmakers and advocating for her causes. However, she plans to prioritize listening to the insights of those who have come before her, such as Brooks.

She had been advocating for change for six years but it was all in vain. That’s when she made a decision to run for the Tennessee House. Brooks had been a strong advocate for various measures such as background checks, gun storage laws, red flag laws, and many others.

Brooks emphasized that running for office is a deeply personal matter for him. He clarified that he is not seeking to strip anyone of their firearms. Rather, his goal is to ensure that no other family experiences the tragedy that he and his own family endured.

Joyce and Melissa Alexander, both Covenant moms, have planned a visit to the nation’s capital as their next step.

In the upcoming month, the duo will be heading to D.C. to hold meetings with the Tennessee congressional delegation and gun safety organizations in order to advocate for a federal ban on assault weapons. Additionally, they aim to actively participate in the local elections starting from August. Their main goal is to initiate discussions with women who have historically supported conservative values or Republican candidates.

Joyce is urging individuals to vote for the platform rather than the candidate and to assess whether the values of the platform align with their own beliefs. She advises against blindly following party lines, which she believes has contributed to the current political climate of a supermajority.

‘We’re not going anywhere’

According to Joyce, while different groups advocate for similar objectives and principles, their methods may differ since “advocacy does not have a one-size-fits-all approach.” Some organizations have opted for massive, physical demonstrations, while others celebrate gradual advancements, like Voices for a Safer Tennessee, which has raised substantial amounts of money and boasts of its ties with influential Tennessee conservatives.

According to a recent op-ed, the members of the Voices board expressed their optimism that no new legislation was passed by the General Assembly to weaken gun safety laws. Additionally, they highlighted the passage of a new law that will prevent certain juvenile offenders from obtaining firearms until they reach the age of 25.

Mark Barden, the leader of Sandy Hook Promise, is intimately familiar with the arduous and protracted struggle to stop school shootings and other similar tragedies. He lost his own son, Daniel, during the 2012 mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut, which claimed the lives of 20 students and six adults. Driven by his personal tragedy, Barden was determined to take action to prevent further loss of life.

According to Barden, “This life of pain should not be endured by anyone.”

Established in 2013 by families who lost loved ones in the Sandy Hook shooting, Sandy Hook Promise concentrates on educating young people to identify warning signs and prevent acts of violence. Barden notes that the organization’s program has successfully averted school shootings and suicide attempts.

Although Sandy Hook Promise’s approach may differ from that of Tennessee advocates, Barden emphasizes the importance of maintaining long-term health and engagement. He believes that advocating for policy change at both the state and federal levels is just one aspect of the larger picture. Prevention training and providing resources to help those in need are equally critical in his opinion.

According to him, the process is quite lengthy. He emphasized the significance of clearly expressing what tasks are necessary and which ones can be skipped.

Despite the passing of 12 years, the tension between prioritizing his family and personal well-being and continuing his work remains a challenge for him. He admits to having taken a step back at times to regain his focus and find balance.

According to Joyce, she is currently facing the same challenge of balancing her advocacy, parenthood, and career. However, she remains determined to continue with her endeavors, despite the difficulties.

Joyce reassured, “We are here to stay and we are closely monitoring the situation. Our aim is to ensure inclusivity by inviting more individuals to join the discussion.”

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MBS Staff
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