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Activists form human chain across Nashville, Tennessee, on Covenant school shooting anniversary

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Thousands of people linked arms across Nashville on Wednesday, forming a human chain on the one-year anniversary of a shooting at the Covenant School that killed three 9-year-old children and three adults.

The event organized by gun safety advocates included families from the school and children who were in the building when their classmates were shot.

“It’s been a difficult week, and it’s been really hard and sad,” said Melissa Alexander, who has a 10-year-old at the private Christian elementary school. “But then we’ve had a chapel, and a private get-together, and then to see everybody linking arms out here really is like a bright spot. It gives me hope. And it fills my cup with happiness. I guess it’s the healing power of community.”

The event was sponsored by Voices for a Safer Tennessee, formed by a group of local moms just after the shooting last year to try to move the needle on gun safety issues in the Republican-controlled state. They planned the first human chain event within days of coming together and brought out more than 10,000 people. They expected even more on Wednesday.

Linking Arms for Change last year was one of the few events where Covenant mom Sarah Shoop Neumann felt she could take her young child, she said.

“He wanted to come to things, and this is a thing where I can show you all of the people coming together who support your community,” she said of her 6-year-old son. “To be honest, I didn’t really feel like coming out today. But I felt like I needed to be here, and I appreciate that they’re doing this again.”

On Wednesday, she linked arms with Shaundelle Brooks, who has been fighting for changes to Tennessee’s gun laws since her son was murdered during a mass shooting at a Nashville Waffle House in 2018.

“Everyone asks me if I’m hopeful,” she said of the ever-growing coalition supporting change. “I am. It’s unfortunate that, you know, that we’re coming together under these circumstances. But it’s good that more people are showing up. …We need to do something. This has to stop. Enough is enough.”

Brooks is now campaigning to become a state representative, while Alexander and Shoop Neumann are among a group of Covenant moms who 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 it 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.”

Nicole Smith, vice chair of the Voices for a Safer Tennessee board, 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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This story was first published March 27, 2024. It has been updated March 28, 2024, to correct the last name of a Covenant student’s mom. She is Sarah Shoop Neumann, not Neuman.

By TRAVIS LOLLER and JONATHAN MATTISE
Associated Press

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