Covenant shooting victim’s mom challenges lawmakers in gun reform ad: ‘What’s more important?’

Katy Dieckhaus, mother of Covenant School shooting victim Evelyn Dieckhaus, attends a legislative session of the state Senate on April 20 in Nashville. (AP Photo/George Walker IV)

NASHVILLE — A mother whose 9-year-old daughter died in the March gun assault at The Covenant School in Nashville is making a video plea for Tennessee lawmakers to act to strengthen state gun laws during an expected special session that Gov. Bill Lee says he will call.

"On March 27, 2023, our lives were forever changed by simply dropping our girls off at school," Katy Dieckhaus said of her daughter, Evelyn Dieckhaus, in the ad. "A place where Evelyn loved to learn, strengthen her faith and where her life was taken by a troubled person who easily accessed multiple firearms, turning our whole world and family upside down.

"Beginning Aug. 21, Tennessee lawmakers will decide whether to pass responsible firearm safety laws that will work toward protecting our children and their right to life. What's more important?"

The ad kicks off a statewide push by Voices for a Safer Tennessee, a nonpartisan organization that was created by parents at the private conservative Christian elementary school in response to the attack that killed three 9-year-olds and three adults. The heavily armed shooter, 28-year-old Audrey Hale, a former Covenant student, was killed by responding police officers.

Voices for a Safer Tennessee's goal is to prioritize firearm safety and promote by legislation "responsible firearm ownership," according to a news release. The campaign was launched last month where in ordinary times Evelyn Dieckhaus' parents would have been celebrating her 10th birthday.

"This is a statewide ad campaign that includes cable placement as well as digital buys and social media," said Michelle Augusty, a strategic communications consultant working with Safer Tennessee, in an email in response to questions posed by the Chattanooga Times Free Press.

"Our goal is to reach as many Tennesseans as possible to educate them about the firearm safety policies we are advocating for during the upcoming special session. These include temporary transfer laws, secure storage laws and consistent background check requirements," Augusty added.

Details on the effort's budget were not immediately available.

Lee, a Republican, and his wife, Maria Lee, were friends of one of the victims, Covenant's head Katherine Koonce. Lee, who as governor earlier championed loosening state gun laws, called on lawmakers to enact an order of protection law that would enable police to remove firearms from someone deemed dangerous through a judicial proceeding.

Many of his fellow Republicans, who hold supermajorities in both the House and Senate, balked during the regular session, and along with gun-rights groups charged it was a red flag law. Lee has said his proposal is different in that it allows the person who faces removal of his or her guns the ability to attend the judicial hearing and argue against the firearm's removal. In states with red flag laws, the firearm's owner is partly excluded from the legal process.

Over the weekend, the Tennessee Republican Party's State Executive Committee approved a resolution urging Lee not to carry through with his planned special session. The governor has yet to issue the call formally.

House Speaker Cameron Sexton, R-Crossville, and Senate Majority Leader Jack Johnson, R-Franklin, oppose Lee's measure, with Johnson telling the Times Free Press he won't introduce the bill. Johnson, Sexton and other Republicans are talking up a variety of other measures.

Proponents of restrictions cite a Vanderbilt University Poll that found 82% of Tennesseans support Lee's proposed executive order on gun background checks and three-quarters of voters support a red flag gun law.

The Tennessee Firearms Association, which opposes Lee's plan, cites another poll done by co/efficient. That survey found 84% of voters support another approach: Dangerous individuals should be removed from the community rather than taking their guns and leaving the individual in the community.

"To prevent school shootings and crime throughout our state, Tennessee voters want to remove dangerous, violent people — not red flag laws that confiscate guns but keep threatening individuals in the community," said John Harris, the association's executive director, in a recent statement. "Clearly, this special session and the legislation under consideration is contrary to common sense and the will of the people."

He said his group's "Red Flag Down" campaign will give citizens a voice and "ensure it is heard loud and clear at the State Capitol."

Contact Andy Sher at [email protected] or 615-285-9480.