Tennessee House meeting turns ugly after motion to cut off debate on bill regarding guns on school grounds

Melissa Alvarez hugs her son Ignacio, 2, with the words "Protect My Babies" written on her arms in the House Civic Justice Committee of 1st Extraordinary Session meeting during a special session of the state legislature on public safety Wednesday, Aug. 23, 2023, in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/George Walker IV)

NASHVILLE — Tempers erupted in a Tennessee House committee Wednesday evening after a Republican lawmaker moved to cut off debate on a bill to expand the pool of people who can bring guns on school property, including at sporting events.

The bill would allow guns on campus for holders of state-issued handgun carry permits as well as current and former police and members of the military.

The motion to cut off debate came from Rep. Todd Warner, R-Lewisburg, on a bill sponsored by Rep. Chris Todd, R-Jackson. It quickly threw the Education Administration Committee into pandemonium for a while.

Rep. Justin Jones, D-Nashville, earlier accused Chair Mark White, R-Memphis, of ignoring his effort to get recognized prior to White's calling on Warner.

"We told you because we know the games you play," Jones told White, later adding, "don't be a coward."

White rejected the assertion and initially threatened to remove Jones from the committee. But White wound up calling for a recess. He and fellow Republicans huddled in private before coming back in. Warner's motion on the previous question failed, and debate began early Wednesday evening.

Todd's bill later failed in a 9-9 tie with White voting no.

The fracas came as mothers of students from The Covenant School in Nashville and others were prepared to testify against Todd's bill. Lawmakers are meeting in a special session called by Republican Gov. Bill Lee. It came in the wake of the March 27 gun attack on The Covenant School that left three 9-year-old children at the private elementary school and three adults dead.

The attacker was a 28-year-old who attended Covenant as a child. The shooter was killed by responding police. The shooting has ignited debate over Tennessee gun laws, restrictions on mentally ill people getting access to firearms and more.

Lee had initially proposed a law to allow removal of firearms from people deemed dangerous through a judicial process. His fellow Republicans said no to that but have offered legislation that includes quicker emergency commitments to mental health facilities.

Todd told committee members earlier in the Education Subcommittee that similar laws allowing permit holders, law enforcement and military members to have guns in schools have worked in other states.

"I want to put into place things that will provide protection, that is real world protection," Todd said, later adding, "When a criminal knows that they're going into a situation where they're likely to be killed as soon as they get in the door if they're trying to kill people, they're going to go to a different" place. "You never hear of a police station being shot up, and there's only one reason; it's not the uniform or the badges, it's the guns on the other side of that door."

Two mothers from The Covenant School testified during the same subcommittee meeting, describing in graphic detail the experiences of their children who survived the attack.

"The first thing the teachers knew to do was to pull down the shade and lock the door," Melissa Alexander told the subcommittee. "We had a barracuda lock. Her hands were shaking so bad she couldn't lock the door."

After praising Covenant teachers, Alexander said she is a gun owner. She said she didn't think she would have been capable of shooting a gun under the circumstances while also keeping students quiet and safe.

"It is only by God's blessing that that shooter walked by our classroom, and you can see it in the footage," said Alexander, who described how her son heard gunshots on the school's second floor, could smell gunpowder and thought he would be killed.

"He knows what they are," she said. "He has two guns himself. He knew he was about to die."

In response to Covenant mothers' pleas, lawmakers are also looking at closing off autopsy and medical examiner reports of minors killed in gun violence.

Lawmakers are pressing a number of bills, with House Speaker Cameron Sexton, R-Crossville, sponsoring bills to crack down on violent juveniles and boosting mental health facilities.

Lawmakers are hoping to wrap up the special session either Thursday or Friday.

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