‘Mommy, What If I Die When I Go Back to School?’

Gun Rights

ary Joyce’s daughter
witnessed the unspeakable. “The day after the children were murdered at the school, grief therapists passed out ‘Feelings Cards‘ with faces on them to help the children identify what they were feeling,” she recalled. “My nine-year-old daughter, Monroe, who saw the shooter, the barrel of the AR-15, and her friend get hit and die, chose the ‘Proud’ card. Puzzled, I asked her why she chose that card. She told me that she chose it because she was proud that she managed to sit so still and not make noise so the shooter wouldn’t see her. She is nine years old.”

This is some of the heartbreak that Mary Joyce shared with me about her experience in the wake of the Covenant School shooting March 27 in Nashville that killed three of her daughter’s longtime classmates, along with three extraordinary and beloved staff members.

Mary said her child, in her third-grade innocence, believed that her friend had fainted from fright, but was going to be OK. Death never occurred to her. She described the moment her child understood that her friends had actually died: “I saw the exact moment her childhood innocence disappeared forever.”

Many of these families aren’t only heartbroken, they’re also confused and angry. “Why was someone so unhinged allowed to have weapons of war? What are these assault-style weapons even for? There are lots of hunters here. They hunt turkey. You can’t eat a turkey that’s been torn apart by an AR-15,” Mary told me.

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Becky Hansen has a fourth-grader and a kindergartner who were at the Covenant School that day. Both remain traumatized. She told me that her five-year-old son is afraid to go back to school. “He said to me, ‘Mommy, what if I die when I go back to school?’”

Another Covenant mom I spoke with, Sarah Neumann, has a five-year-old child who was fortunate enough not to be in the school that day, but Sarah was across the street and rushed to the school when she got text messages about an active shooter. She was at the church where parents were reunited with their children, and is haunted by the screams of those who weren’t. 

“The safety of our children and communities isn’t a partisan issue. It’s not a left-or-right issue. It’s a right-or-wrong issue,” said Sarah. 

These mothers want change. They say they believe step-by-step gun-safety laws can slow down this madness tearing apart communities from coast to coast.

“My kids are brave, just for showing up for school. I need to show my kids that I’m brave enough to show up for them,” Becky said. “There are ways to respect the Second Amendment and also keep our children and communities safe. I have a prayer for unity. I have hope for change.”

Covenant School parents Lori Buck, Abby McLean, and Mary Joyce (from left) comfort one another while locking arms to demonstrate for gun safety and common-sense gun laws this April as part of a three-mile human chain to the Tennessee State Capitol Tuesday in Nashville.

Mark Zaleski/The Tennessean/USA TODAY NETWORK/Imagn

They’re calling for safer gun-storage laws, closing background-check loopholes, and implementing “extreme-risk protection orders” or “red-flag laws” that allow law enforcement to temporarily remove guns from people who exhibit the potential to harm themselves or others.

I first met Sarah at the Tennessee Capitol, and Mary, Becky, and their children at the Linking Arms for Change event on April 18 in Nashville, stretching from the Monroe Carrell Jr. Children’s Hospital, where victims of the Covenant School shooting were transferred, all the way to the Tennessee State House. Nearly 10,000 of us linked arms to demand that legislators work together to propose and pass these common-sense gun-safety laws.

The Second Amendment right to bear arms does not replace or supersede the right to life. And the idea that the U.S. is supposed to be some “wild west” with no gun laws is a myth. Since its inception, America has had thousands of gun laws, regulating everything from sale, purchase, use, and outright bans. 

I went to the well of the Statehouse with state Reps. Justin Jones and Gloria Johnson to uplift the voices of the grieving Covenant parents, frightened children, and stunned Nashville community to shine a light on what matters more than the right to bear arms: the right to be alive.

The reasons to pass common-sense gun laws like those that ban AR-15-style weapons are compelling and represent the common ground we all can stand on for the good of us all.  

According to the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, the U.S. far outpaces every other peer country in the percentage of child deaths caused by firearms. And we’re the only industrialized nation where AR-15-style civilian-combat weapons are the number-one weapon of choice for gun lovers. The National Rifle Association glorifies this weapon of war, calling it “America’s Rifle.” 

The AR-15 has only one purpose: to explode a body beyond any chance of life, and to do it at rapid speed, hitting as many bodies as possible. 

In Uvalde, Texas, doctors needed DNA samples to identify the bodies of the children who were murdered with an AR-15-style weapon during the mass shooting at Robb Elementary School May 24, 2022.  

“It’s the perfect killing machine,” Tim Dickinson reported in this publication in 2018.

The U.S. has the highest per-capita gun ownership among civilians of any democratic nation in the world. We have five percent of the world’s population, and as of 2018, have 46 percent of civilian-owned guns. 

And the highest number of gun deaths occur in the states with the weakest gun regulations. No one can credibly say that gun-safety laws don’t make a difference.

Here we are, more than 10 years after 20 children and six adults were massacred at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut, five years after 17 students and staff were killed and another 17 wounded at the Marjorie Stoneham Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, and just one year after 19 children and two teachers were slaughtered with this weapon of war in Uvalde, Texas. And here, now, at the Covenant School in Nashville, where three third-graders and three staff were gunned down, combat-style, leaving behind an unfathomable wake of trauma and grief.

Since the 10-year ban on these types of assault weapons expired in 2004, the AR-15-style gun has been used in many other mass murders, including the massacre of 58 — and wounding of hundreds more — concertgoers in Las Vegas in 2017, 26 parishioners in a Sutherland Springs, Texas, church, 50 dead and dozens more critically wounded at the Pulse Nightclub in Orlando, and 10 Black people murdered in a Buffalo, New York, mass shooting by an avowed white supremacist. 

And, as Tennesseans were protesting for gun-safety legislation outside the Tennessee Statehouse in the wake of the Covenant School shooting, five people were shot dead and eight injured by an AR-15-style gun in a bank in Louisville, Kentucky. A whole family was just gunned down in Texas in May by a neighbor who was enraged when they asked him to please stop shooting off his weapon of war at night while they were trying to get their baby to sleep. One killed and four wounded by a shooter with a handgun in an Atlanta doctor’s office, and nine killed, including a five-year-old child, at a mall in Texas as I’m writing this piece.

It’s madness to think that our children could lose their lives simply by going to school, shopping at a mall, going to the doctor, knocking on the wrong door, turning into the wrong driveway, or mistaking another car for their own.

Nashville stars Sheryl Crow, Margo Price, Kacey Musgraves, Amy Grant, and others added their voices to the chorus of Tennesseans calling for common-sense gun-safety laws so that we can protect our children and communities from weapons of war.

“Gun violence in Tennessee is not inevitable,” reads a letter the music stars sent to Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee. “We are not hopeless, and we will not accept inaction. This does not have to be our normal, and we ask that you stand with us! We know that gun-safety laws work. Policies like extreme-risk protection laws and secure-storage of firearms can save lives. And we ask that you keep your session open until these policies are put into place.”

The GOP supermajority closed the session with no action on gun safety. After initially resisting GOP Gov. Lee’s call for a special session on gun reform, the legislators belatedly appear to have agreed to a special session on Aug. 21.

That’s welcome news to Rock & Roll Hall of Famer Sheryl Crow. Her own children go to school near the Covenant School in Nashville. “Our kids prepare for mass shootings. They prepare to avoid being killed in their own classrooms. They go to schools that are now built like fortresses. But our government does nothing,” she told me. 

Sheryl Crow performs at a vigil to mourn and honor the lives of the victims, survivors, and families of the Covenant School on March 29 in Nashville.

Jason Kempin/Getty Images

“We’re asking for the bare minimum. We’re told that’s all we can possibly expect — if we can expect anything. All we’re asking for is background checks so weapons of war don’t get into dangerous hands. We’re just asking for a waiting period before you get the gun in your hands. We’re asking for safe storage of firearms. None of these infringe upon anyone’s Second Amendment rights. They may be a bit of an inconvenience, but they are no infringement. Is asking you to slightly inconvenience yourself really too much to ask in order to save children’s lives?”

Mass shootings, currently defined by Everytown for Gun Safety as incidents where at least four people are shot, wounded, or killed, reached a fever-pitch high of 686 in 2021. So far, just halfway through 2023, the number of mass shootings is already more than 200, with the number of all deaths by gun violence so far this year already exceeding 14,000 people. Every day, 120 people are killed by guns in this nation.

Gun deaths among children and teens grew a shocking 50 percent between 2019 and 2021. Nearly 50,000 Americans died as a direct result of gun violence in the U.S. in 2021, the latest date for which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has complete data.

According to data compiled by Voices for a Safer Tennessee, Tennessee has the 12th-highest rate of gun deaths in the country. In an average year, nearly 1,400 children and adults in Tennessee are killed by guns. As with the rest of the country, guns are the number-one cause of death for Tennessee children.

Gun violence is so pervasive in the United States that it constitutes the central reason that countries are instituting travel bans to the U.S. At least seven countries currently caution their citizens against traveling here, with the massive, unrestrained gun violence that soaks our nation in the blood of our children and neighbors a leading factor. The unrestrained bloodshed floods our schools, grocery stores, places of worship, entertainment venues, birthday parties, and even an Independence Day parade. 

Opponents to gun safety say the problem is mental illness, the internet, isolation, social media, video games. But guess what? Other countries have all of these things too, but they don’t have anything approaching our levels of gun violence. Because, do you know what we have and they don’t? Easy access to weapons of war without regulation. That’s the difference.

Are Americans OK with this carnage? Absolutely not. The vast majority of Americans — of both parties and independents — including a majority of Tennesseans, want an end to the killing.

Support for common-sense gun-safety laws is widespread and bipartisan. An overwhelming majority of Americans support gun-safety laws like universal background checks, red-flag laws, extended wait periods, and higher ages for purchase. 

According to a recent Voicers for a Safer Tennessee poll, stunningly large majorities of Tennesseans from all political identifications — including gun owners and, significantly, 63 percent to 84 percent of Trump voters — support safe-storage laws, a 72-hour waiting period for purchase, reporting lost and stolen guns, closing universal background-check loopholes, and implementing extreme-risk protection orders (i.e., red-flag laws).

Concerned Tennesseans quickly gathered over “food and fellowship” in the wake of the Covenant School massacre to form Voices for a Safer Tennessee to advocate for these laws. 

It was through these throngs of grieving and concerned mothers and children that my colleagues and I walked through each morning after the Covenant School massacre at the Tennessee State Legislature. I saw my Republican colleagues stride briskly past the mourning protestors, averting their eyes, ignoring the people crying out for change. 

Tennessee Congressman Tim Burchett threw up his hands and declared, “There’s nothing we can do.” 

WHEN I THINK OF the courage of all the Covenant parents and surviving children, and all those who have suffered trauma and loss due to gun violence in this country, nothing disappoints me more than lawmakers who have the power to make change choosing to throw up their hands in defeat and say, “There’s nothing we can do but pray.”

They’re wrong. There is everything we can, and must, do. Gun-safety laws are proven to work.

This is the indifferent legislative climate in which Reps. Justin Jones and Gloria Johnson and I attempted, through regular order, to address the calls of the protesters outside and inside our chamber. But we weren’t allowed to do so. Our mics were repeatedly cut off.

So we decided the only thing we could do, in good conscience, was to peacefully walk to the well of the House and let our constituents know that we are listening and we are with them. Indeed, we felt this was our duty, according to our state constitution’s Article 2, Section 17, which states: Any member of either House of the General Assembly shall have liberty to dissent from and protest against, any act or resolve which he may think injurious to the public or to any individual, and to have the reasons for his dissent entered on the journals.

For this peaceful action, and the joining in of chants for change during a hastily called recess, Representative Jones and I, both young Black men, were expelled from office. Our colleague, Representative Johnson, a white woman, was not.

Covenant mom, Sarah Neumann learned of our pending expulsion and rushed to the Statehouse. “I couldn’t believe that these brave legislators who were standing up against the murder of our children and the shattering of our community were to be expelled for doing their jobs,” she said.

Representative Jones and I not only offended the special interests of the National Rifle Association and the Tennessee Firearms Association, we also breached decorum by our very presence on the House floor as young Black men objecting to a status quo created by years of white supremacy. 

This is an old story in Tennessee, the birthplace of the Ku Klux Klan and the nation’s Jim Crow Laws, which either legalized or had the effect of legalizing racism in public places and institutions.

Marginalized populations, those pushed to the periphery of our society, use civil disobedience to resist the status quo and overcome oppression in this country.  Representative Jones and I believe such peaceful resistance to unjust and harmful laws is our moral duty. As Dr. Martin Luther King said, “One has not only a legal, but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.” Dr. King led a nation toward equality by disobeying unjust laws. He broke decorum.

As Diane Nash protested segregation during the 1960s, sitting in at lunch counters in Nashville where Black customers were not welcome, she disobeyed unjust laws. She broke decorum.

The late civil rights giant and congressman John Lewis participated in the Freedom Rides of 1961 to protest racial segregation at interstate bus terminals. He marched across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, in 1965, and was nearly killed during beatings from police. John Lewis disobeyed unjust laws. He broke decorum. 

The late congressman issued to us all a challenge: “Speak up, speak out, get in the way. Get into good trouble, necessary trouble, and help redeem the soul of America.”

The author, Democratic state Reps. Justin Pearson of Memphis (center) and Justin Jones of Nashville (right) before they were expelled from the Tennessee State Legislature for protesting the Covenant School shooting.

Seth Herald/Getty Images

Montana state legislator Zooey Zephyr, protesting an unjust state law that bans transgender youth from receiving life-saving medical care, said that those who voted for this should consider the “blood on their hands.” She was charged with breaking decorum and banished from the House floor for the rest of the term.

Violence comes in many forms, whether it is from the barrel of a gun, the noose of systemic racism, the ignorance of transphobia, the brutality of poverty, or the imposition of unjust laws. It must be resisted.

Leaders in Nashville and Memphis promptly reinstated Representative Jones and I to overturn the unjust and undemocratic actions of the gerrymandered Republican supermajority that denied nearly 150,000 Tennesseans representation in the Tennessee State Legislature.

They sent a clear, powerful message to the Republicans that our communities would not stand idly by while they placed the interests of the gun lobby and assault-weapons manufacturers above democracy and the rights and safety of the people. That they no longer control the narrative. The people are reclaiming the People’s House.

We are at an inflection point. Gun violence is an obscene mainstay of our lives. Nearly one in five Americans have a family member who has died from gun violence, and one in six who have witnessed gun violence. There are at least 400 million civilian-owned guns in America. There are more mass shootings than there are days in a year.

But we, the people, are united as a majority that rejects this epidemic of gun violence. We are a growing state and national movement of moms, of youth, of concerned communities.

Gun lobbyists and the politicians who serve them don’t care about our children. They care about dictating policy that is financially lucrative to them, and it doesn’t matter that these policies harm people, or kill children.

Margo Price, another of the Nashville musicians who penned the letter to Gov. Lee calling for common-sense gun-safety measures, said to me, “My children have been traumatized by the Covenant School shooting. I find myself looking over my shoulder when I’m out in public. This senseless gun violence and inaction from our lawmakers to address it could make me feel hopeless. But I see leaders like Representative Jones and you, standing up for gun reform, and it gives me hope for a safer world for our children.” 

Price went on, “I’m an artist, but I also consider myself a cultural worker. I hope my songs, lyrics, and actions can inspire others to discuss difficult topics. I grew up around guns, and am a gun owner myself. Art has the ability to change hearts and minds. As a musical artist in the country-music scene, I’m in a position to talk to people about what needs to be changed.”

“If you’re a musician with a giant following of moms and dads, and you don’t feel an obligation to speak up about gun safety, when you can have a significant positive influence, that strikes me as a tragedy, and frankly, insanely greedy,“ continued Sheryl Crow. “If I had to lose every single fan, all my fame and income, to save a child from being gunned down at school, of course I would do it.”

“If your freedom is defined by a stockpile of military-grade weapons and ignores the right to life of my children, you need to take a hard look at what freedom really means,” said Crow. “It doesn’t have to be this way.”

She’s right. It doesn’t have to be this way. It is purely a political choice that we make to allow our children to be murdered in one of the most gruesome ways imaginable. 

And for what? 

With so many families, culture workers, faith leaders, educators, medical professionals, civil rights leaders, and schoolchildren demanding change, why do conservative lawmakers in Tennessee and other statehouses, and the halls of Congress, not only refuse to listen, but also pass laws to try to end all gun regulations.

Follow the money. The National Rifle Association has long been one of the most powerful lobbies at both the state and national levels. Even as the revelation of widespread corruption has knocked them down a peg or two, they vastly outspend gun-safety advocates. They willfully misinterpret the Second Amendment, they create a mythology of patriotism and freedom around the ownership of weapons of war.

AR-15-style weapons are cash cows for gun manufacturers. Estimates are that one in 20 Americans own at least one such weapon. And they are highly customizable, so there are enormous sales on all of those add-ons as well. The NRA gets significant funding from gun manufacturers, representing their interests when it comes to lobbying efforts.

The NRA and the Tennessee Firearms Association don’t necessarily spend outrageous amounts to get a lawmaker elected in Tennessee. What it’s about is controlling the narrative with the toxic message that freedom means being armed to the teeth, and the threat of withholding money gun interests will spend and actions they’ll take to punish a lawmaker who doesn’t toe their line.

The status quo is unacceptable. We’re done with mass murders, slaughters of children, and the abrogation of our true freedoms: the right to live, to thrive, to be treated equally regardless of what we look like, what gender we are, whom we love, where we live, or how little our income might be.

This is a problem that can be solved.

We’re done with following a dangerous “decorum,” defined by special interests who harm instead of help, who kill instead of support life. It’s time for all of us to link arms, sea to sea, and get into good and necessary trouble to redeem the soul of America.

Pearson is the interim Tennessee state Representative for District 86 in Memphis and Millington. He was expelled from the Tennessee Statehouse by the GOP majority for standing with those calling for gun-safety laws, and was reinstated a week later by the Shelby County Commission in Memphis.

(Special thanks to Karen Dolan of the Institute for Policy Studies for assisting with this piece.)

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