The Covenant Parents Aren’t Going to Keep Quiet on Guns

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.

Ms. Joyce, as the mother of a third-grade student, was among the parents who spent days at the legislature. She repeatedly testified on behalf of her friends, parents who had lost a child in the violence on March 27.

The Republican-dominated legislature in Tennessee has resisted calls to toughen gun laws, even as polls show many Tennessee voters support those changes.

Several parents understood that, for many, the right to bear arms, without any caveat, was an intrinsic piece of American identity. They knew this was particularly true in Tennessee, a state with an official rifle and a history of political retribution for conservatives who disregard the gun lobbyists and their hard-line base.

They had watched efforts led by other parents, galvanized by similar tragedy in Texas and other states, become snarled by politics.

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

As word spread of an active shooter, parents raced from across Nashville to reunite with their children.Credit…Desiree Rios/The New York Times

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.

Parents had begun to think differently about school shootings after the tragedy at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas. But the Covenant School, a sanctuary on a hill, had seemed untouchable.Credit…Kevin Wurm for The New York Times
Three 9-year-old children — Evelyn Dieckhaus, Hallie Scruggs and William Kinney — would not make it back to their classroom. Dr. Katherine Koonce and two other staff members, Cynthia Peak and Mike Hill, would also be killed.Credit…Justin Renfroe/EPA, via Shutterstock

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.”

A Moment for Action

Sarah Shoop Neumann, right, with State Representative Justin Jones. His expulsion from the House pushed her to become more involved in the legislature, she said.

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.

The parents spent hours over the summer and fall in the legislature, pleading with lawmakers to listen to the stories of their families and consider even the smallest change to Tennessee law.
After fanning out to separate meetings with lawmakers, the parents would come back to strategize over Chick-fil-A, coffee or salads. They wrestled with how to persuade Republicans, in particular, to consider any kind of response to the Covenant shooting.

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

Gun reform activists held signs in a committee room, days after a court overturned a new Republican-authored House rule that had banned signs in the Capitol.

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.

Ms. Neumann was comforted by Justin Pearson and Gloria Johnson, Democratic state representatives who faced backlash from Republicans over their calls for tougher gun laws. The lawmakers grew close to some of the parents as they began their own advocacy.
Debate often grew ugly, especially when Republicans tried to quickly cut off debate in a committee hearing over a highly contested bill to allow people with enhanced carry permits to take handguns onto school campuses.

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.

A Fight Even to Be Heard

Abby McLean, center, wiped away tears before she gave testimony on behalf of her three children and their friends. Normally energetic and at ease in front of a children’s ministry, she had to overcome nerves in publicly describing her family’s experience.

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 at ease in front of a children’s ministry, through the nerves of public testimony, helping her find the right turn of phrase that did not infringe on the most sensitive details of the children’s experiences.

But before she could speak, Republicans tried to shut down debate.

From left, Ms. Neumann, Ms. Joyce and Melissa Alexander at a news conference. The parents formed two groups — Covenant Families for Brighter Tomorrows and a separate action fund — to educate Tennesseans on gun safety and mental health resources, and to lobby for more legislative change.
After the proposed bill to allow more guns on campus failed, the parents celebrated a rare victory after days of hard work. But it would be much harder to persuade Republicans to support any of the measures supported by the families affected by the shooting.

When the hearing reconvened, the fury was evident in Ms. McLean’s voice. Brandishing a photograph that included the three children who were killed, she demanded a justification for more guns on school property when the surviving students were still terrified of loud noises.

Ms. Neumann stormed out when a Republican lawmaker suggested that if guns were less readily available, the assailant would have just run over the children at recess. But she returned, hands trembling, to count the votes that sunk the bill.

It was demoralizing, some of the mothers said, to be talked down to, to see lawmakers who had sympathized with their pain in private still vote against them in public. To be told that it was too soon for such serious changes, or that any change at all would threaten the Second Amendment.

Did you know, the parents asked one another, that it was like this? How did I not know?

By the end of a week of missed meals and bedtimes, the mothers’ ankles were chafed red from hours standing and walking, all for work that they were having to defend publicly and privately.

“I just keep thinking of David and Goliath,” Becky Hansen said at one point. “Every time we get a blow, it just adds fuel to keep going.” Her family is still grappling with the trauma of March 27, including fears of loud noises and anxiety around crowds.
Ms. Neumann laying out her son’s uniform. Parents and students have taken to wearing friendship bracelets to match the school’s red, black and white uniform colors and pay tribute to the victims.

“There are many people in my family that don’t agree with anything I’m doing here,” Ms. Neumann said one morning, dressed in nursing scrubs. Swiping through photographs of her son’s recent drawings — a coffin, a good guy and a bad guy with guns — offered her a reminder of why she kept going.

Ultimately, the legislature sent Mr. Lee a few policy bills, but none that the Covenant parents had prioritized passed.

“When is it going to be the right group of people that gets affected for someone to listen?” Ms. Joyce asked on the final day, adding, “I thought we were close enough to their children.”

Many Battles Ahead

Covenant students have not yet returned to their building on the hill for school, as parents and the school grapple with how and when to return.

The small moments are more meaningful now: the lighting of the Advent candles in early December, celebrations of a lost tooth on Fun Friday.

Still bruised by bare-knuckled politics, the parents are thinking about how to revive their work in the legislature. Some are seeking out political challengers willing to compromise on guns, others have visited the governor’s office and the White House. Some mothers are studying the tactics of other activist movements, including the women’s suffrage movement that clinched the right to vote in Tennessee.

“For such a traumatic event to occur and that not be enough for something to change is disappointing,” Ms. Neumann said. “But it also helped us understand how the system works.”

Sometimes Ms. Joyce watches her daughter go into what she calls a loop — a moment where the memories of March 27 overwhelm what is happening in the present.
Like other students, Ms. Neumann’s oldest son, Noah, has asked her difficult questions about bad guys and safety in the aftermath of the shooting.

And never far from their thoughts is how their children will emerge from this trauma.

For nearly nine months, Ms. Hansen’s son slept on a couch in his parents’ room, while he thrashed through night terrors. His sister struggles with panic attacks.

Ms. Joyce’s daughter has mapped out an escape route for their home, one she wants to fortify with bulletproof windows. An aspiring singer, she has yet to recover 50 percent of her hearing in her left ear.

Publicly, Mr. Leatherwood returned to the church where he had reunited with his children to make a statement condemning the publication of excerpts from the Covenant shooter’s writings last month, fearing the lasting spread of its hate.

And at home, he is closely watching his children for new signs of how the shooting has affected them. It had been weeks before his son would describe how a woman who lived near the school had ushered his fleeing kindergarten class into her home, turning on “Sonic the Hedgehog” to distract them.

And he is thinking differently about a day he has been looking forward to, when he could take the rifles passed down to him by his grandfathers and hand them to his son.

“I still want that day to happen,” he said. “But I want to make sure that if I do so, it doesn’t trigger him in some way.”

The next moment will come in January, when the parents will return to the legislature. And maybe soon, their children will return to their school building on the hill, refurbished for a different start.

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