In the wake of the latest mass shooting in the United States — this time at a primary school in Nashville, Tennessee — protesters have taken to the state capital to demand gun control action from legislators.
The outrage on display during the demonstrations on Thursday has become part of a familiar pattern in the aftermath of US school shootings. Protests erupt, calling for greater gun control, but those efforts often face stiff opposition from Republicans concerned about curtailing firearm access.
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“Do your job!” protesters said as they marched to the Tennessee State Capitol, where they filed into the building’s rotunda ahead of a regular meeting of the state legislature.
Videos showed that they sang the protest anthem “Power to the People” as legislators passed through the crowd, later breaking into chants of “shame, shame”.
— Rep. Gloria Johnson (@VoteGloriaJ) March 30, 2023
Several protesters held signs that called for an assault weapons ban and the creation of so-called red flag laws, which allow authorities to temporarily remove guns from people deemed to be a threat to themselves or others.
The measures are among the changes that gun control advocates have demanded for years at both the state and federal levels, in order to address the high rate of gun violence and the regular occurrence of mass shootings in the US.
Meanwhile, on the floor of the state legislature, a confrontation between Democrats and Republicans prompted a rebuke from Tennessee House Speaker Cameron Sexton, who called for restraint “regardless of how high frustration, disappointment, anger, is”.
Protesters have filed up most of the second floor of Tennessee’s Capitol. The state House and Senate are planning to hold their regularly scheduled floor sessions this morning. pic.twitter.com/KYHlRFqQJF
— Adam Friedman (@friedmanadam5) March 30, 2023
Thursday’s demonstrations formed shortly before authorities released chilling 911 calls from the Monday morning attack at The Covenant School, a private Presbyterian school in Nashville.
One caller told an emergency dispatcher she could hear gunshots as she hid in a closet in the school’s art room around 10:13am local time (15:15 GMT).
“I’m hearing more shots,” the caller said, with children’s voices heard in the background, “Please hurry.”
Police have identified the suspect as Audrey Hale, who they say entered the school with two “assault-style” weapons and a pistol, fatally shooting three children and three adults.
All three of the student victims — Evelyn Dieckhaus, Hallie Scruggs and William Kinney — were 9 years old. The head of the school, 60-year-old Katherine Koonce, was also killed, along with substitute teacher 61-year-old Cynthia Peak and the school’s custodian, 61-year-old Mike Hill.
‘Children are dying’
The attack was the 131st mass shooting in the US so far in 2023, according to the Gun Violence Archive, which defines mass shootings as any incidents where four or more victims were injured or killed by a firearm, not including the shooter.
Monday’s killings in Nashville prompted US President Joe Biden to renew calls to tighten federal gun controls, with the White House tweeting on Thursday: “It’s time for Congress to ban assault weapons and high-capacity magazines”.
But speaking in the wake of the shooting, Biden acknowledged: “I can’t do anything except plead with the Congress to act reasonably.”
Meanwhile, tempers have flared on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, where US legislators have drawn familiar battle lines on the issue of gun reform.
Any reforms would face an uphill battle, with the US House of Representatives currently controlled by Republicans, who hold 222 seats in the 435-seat chamber. Meanwhile, Democrats maintain a narrow majority in the US Senate with 51 seats — not enough to overcome a filibuster, which requires 60 votes.
Watch the moment US Democratic congressman Jamaal Bowman confronts Republican Thomas Massie in a heated exchange about gun laws, two days after an attack at a school in Nashville, Tennessee ⤵️
— Al Jazeera English (@AJEnglish) March 30, 2023
In one heated exchange on Wednesday that has since gone viral, Democratic Congressman Jamaal Bowman and Republican Representative Thomas Massie faced off in the halls of the Capitol.
Bowman, a former middle school principal, accused Republicans of being “gutless” and “cowards” for their opposition to federal gun controls.
Massie interjected, speaking in favour of arming teachers. As the exchange continued, he urged Bowman to calm down.
“Calm down?” replied Bowman. “Children are dying!”
Top Republicans have increasingly framed the high rates of violence as an issue of school safety and mental health, with Representative Steve Scalise, the second-highest ranking Republican in the House, telling reporters on Tuesday: “Let’s work to see if there’s something that we can do to help secure schools.”
Of Democrats, he said: “All they want to do is take guns away from law-abiding citizens before they even know the facts.” Many conservatives cite the Second Amendment of the US Constitution as justification for broad access to firearms.
After dodging questions the day after the Nashville attack, Republican House Speaker Kevin McCarthy spoke out on Wednesday, calling on legislators to wait to “see all the facts” before taking action on gun reform.
Meanwhile, Republican Senator John Cornyn, who was instrumental in negotiating a bipartisan, if modest, gun control package in 2022, told CNN: “We’ve gone about as far as we can go [on gun control], unless somebody identifies some area that we didn’t address.”
That previous gun reform package offered incentives to states to pass red flag laws and included provisions to make it more difficult for domestic violence offenders to obtain firearms.
But advocates have said that last year’s legislation fell short of wider-ranging reforms, including an assault weapons ban, universal background checks for all gun buyers and raising the minimum age to purchase guns.
For their part, Democrats have this year already introduced bills to ban assault weapons and high-capacity magazines and to require universal background checks.
On Wednesday, they launched their latest legislative attempt to address the issue.
The bill introduced by Senator Edward J Markey and Representative Elissa Slotkin would direct $50m a year for five years to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to study gun violence.
The agency had for years frozen research on gun violence for fear of running afoul of a 1996 law that prevents the use of federal funds “to advocate or promote gun control”.
Restrictions on such studies were lifted in 2019.
At a news conference on Thursday, House minority leader Hakeem Jeffries called on the chamber’s Republican leadership to allow debate on pending gun reform bills.
“Extreme MAGA Republicans should bring the bipartisan universal criminal background check legislation to the floor, and should also bring to the floor an assault weapons ban so we can have a debate out in [the] open, in front of the American people, as to whether weapons of war have any place in a civilised society,” Jeffries said.
“We’re confident in our position,” he said. “Stop hiding your position.”