Chants were heard inside & outside of the Tennessee Capital as lawmakers resumed work for the first time since the mass shooting at a Christian school in Nashville.
KIMBERLEE KRUESI and TRAVIS LOLLER Associated Press
MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Hundreds of protesters gathered at the Tennessee Capitol on Thursday as the state’s Republican-dominated Legislature began taking up bills for the first time since a mass shooting at a Christian school in Nashville in which three children and three adults were killed.
Chants of “Save our children!” echoed noisily in the hallways between the state Senate and House chambers, with protesters setting up shop inside and outside the Capitol. Some silently filled the Senate chamber’s gallery, including children who held signs reading “I’m nine” — a reference to the age of the three kids who died in Monday’s attack. Most protesters were removed from the gallery after some began yelling down at the lawmakers, “Children are dead!”
The rally followed a Wednesday night candlelight vigil in Nashville where Republican lawmakers stood alongside first Lady Jill Biden, Democratic lawmakers, and musicians including Sheryl Crow, who has called for stricter gun controls since the attack at The Covenant School.
The vigil was somber and at times tearful, as speaker after speaker read the victims’ names and offered condolences to their loved ones but refrained from any statement that could be seen as political. The family of Mike Hill, a 61-year-old custodian who was among those killed, was in attendance, including his seven children.
“Just two days ago was our city’s worst day,” Mayor John Cooper said. “I so wish we weren’t here, but we need to be here.”
In attendance was Shaundelle Brooks, whose 23-year-old son, Akilah Dasilva, was among the four people killed in a 2018 shooting at a Nashville Waffle House. Brooks said she went to the vigil to support the families of those killed at the school.
“I know what it’s like to be a parent — what it feels like, like you’re drowning and can’t move, and that weakness and that hole that comes in your stomach,” she said.
Police have said a 28-year-old former student, whom they identified as Audrey Hale, drove up to the school on Monday morning, shot out the glass doors, entered and began firing indiscriminately.
Among those killed were the three 9-year-old students, Evelyn Dieckhaus, Hallie Scruggs and William Kinney; Katherine Koonce, 60, the head of the school; substitute teacher Cynthia Peak, 61; and Hill.
Authorities haven’t determined the shooter’s motive, but Metropolitan Nashville Police Chief John Drake has said the assailant did not target specific victims and had “some resentment for having to go to that school.”
Drake said the shooter had drawn a detailed map of the school, including potential entry points, and conducted surveillance of the building before carrying out the attack. Drake also said Hale left behind writings that the chief referred to as a “manifesto,” but authorities haven’t released the writings to the public.
Absent from the Wednesday vigil was Tennessee Republican Gov. Bill Lee, who has been an advocate for less restrictive gun laws along with greater school security and once intimated that prayer could protect Tennessee from school shootings and other things.
Lee issued a statement Tuesday saying that Peak was a close friend of his wife, Maria, and that the two had been planning to meet for dinner on Monday.
“Maria woke up this morning without one of her best friends,” Lee said in a video statement, adding that his wife once taught with Peak and Koonce. The women, he said, “have been family friends for decades.”
Earlier Wednesday, Pope Francis sent condolences to Nashville and offered prayers to those affected.
Police said Hale was under a doctor’s care for an undisclosed “emotional disorder.” However, authorities haven’t disclosed a link between that care and the shooting. Police also said Hale was not on their radar before the attack.
Social media accounts and other sources indicate that the shooter identified as a man and might have recently begun using the first name Aiden. Police have said Hale “was assigned female at birth” but used masculine pronouns on a social media profile, however police have continued to use female pronouns and the name Audrey to describe Hale.
Samira Hardcastle, who attended middle school and high school with Hale, said Hale seemed sweet and socially awkward. Hardcastle said she spoke to Hale briefly last month at an event for a mutual friend, and nothing seemed out of the ordinary.
“I don’t think we can rationalize irrational actions, so I am just trying to make peace with that,” she said.