NASHVILLE — Melissa Alexander began Tennessee’s special legislative session last week as a suburban Republican mother determined to respectfully persuade an entrenched GOP supermajority to pass new gun-control laws.
She ended it this week by accusing lawmakers of “stabbing our families and all Tennesseans in the back” with inaction, and vowing that she and other new activists are prepared for a long political fight. She wore a black T-shirt that read “Get used to seeing these faces.”
“I’m a little more hardened after this,” Alexander said Wednesday, after the session ended Tuesday with no significant gun-control legislation passing. “History is going to be made in Tennessee. It just didn’t happen the way that I initially thought it would.”
Alexander, 45, is part of a wave of first-time political activists who were jolted into motion by the March 27 shooting at the Covenant School in Nashville, where three 9-year-olds and three adults were killed.
Alexander’s 9-year-old son was in the school that day, heard the shots a few feet away from his classroom and saw the bodies of his friends lying where they were killed.
Alexander said the special session was an important first step in responding to gun violence.
“I really do think one day we’re going to look back and say, ‘Wow, at this moment in Tennessee, things started to change,’” she said. “In a very red state with a Republican supermajority, Republican constituents stood up for what is right for their children and against the gun lobby.”
A conservative Christian, gun owner and native Tennessean, Alexander had always shied away from politics. But in interviews for a profile in The Washington Post that was published on the eve of the special session, the commercial real estate broker said she felt a calling from God to get involved with the wave of activism sparked by the Covenant shooting.
She and other Covenant parents spent the summer meeting with legislators, posting constantly on social media and holding a prayer vigil for lawmakers.
They demanded stepped-up background checks for gun purchases, tighter gun storage requirements and laws allowing a judge to remove guns from those determined to be a danger to themselves or others, known as “red flag” laws.
They quickly came to understand the realities of a state legislature where Republicans hold 102 of the 132 seats — a margin that experts say is enhanced by gerrymandering — and have little or no political incentive to change their staunchly pro-gun-rights positions.
Many Tennessee GOP legislators argue that the measures sought by the gun-control activists are unconstitutional because they infringe on Second Amendment rights. They have also argued that mass shootings are a mental health issue and would not be prevented by “red flag” laws or the other proposed changes.
“Any red flag law is a non-starter,” the House GOP caucus tweeted in April, when Gov. Bill Lee first suggested the idea. “Our caucus is focused on finding solutions that prevent dangerous individuals from harming the public and preserve the Second Amendment rights of law-abiding citizens.”
When the special session — called by Lee, a Republican who broke ranks with most of his party — started on Aug. 21, Alexander and her group of Covenant parents spent all day every day at the state Capitol.
They took time off work and away from families and spent hours speaking with legislators or watching the proceedings from the House and Senate galleries.
In the end, legislators passed none of their major priorities. Instead, they extended a tax break for gun safes and a free gun lock program — both voluntary measures. They also codified a version of an executive order strengthening background checks that was issued by Lee after the Covenant shooting. Activists said that was positive, but ultimately too small a step.
Despite the lack of results, Rep. Bob Freeman (D) said the Covenant parents “absolutely made a difference.”
“They had people having tough conversations that many in the supermajority have not been willing to have in the past,” said Freeman, who joined other Democrats in supporting the proposed changes advanced by the parent activists. “They’re a tough group to ignore, and they put a real face on the problem. I think it made some of the folks up here second-guess their past stances.”
The state Senate was especially resistant to significant legislation, which caused Alexander to publicly criticize legislators. Her philosophy had been that kindness and respect were better persuaders than anger.
“This lack of action is a choice they’re making and speaks volumes about their lack of compassion and their priority of personal agendas over the people of Tennessee, even their own Republican constituents, including myself,” Alexander said at a news conference Monday.
“On that note, I would like to speak directly to the Senate leadership. Listen closely. The shooter confronted our children with guns, but now you’re stabbing our families, and all Tennesseans, in the back,” she said.
Last week, a day after the session started, a much more reserved Alexander took a seat at the witness table in front of a House subcommittee. At issue was a bill to make autopsy reports for minors killed in violent crime private. Currently, they are public records.
“Who was this child?” said Alexander, wearing a red Covenant T-shirt. “To the public, they are simply information. A data point. A sensational headline. Clickbait. To us as parents, they are our hopes and our dreams. The dinner table, soccer games, back to school, family vacations, birthdays and Christmas morning.”
When she finished, Republican state Rep. Rebecca Alexander, who is no relation, addressed her, fighting back tears: “This is unbelievable to me as a parent. So thank you. Just know that our prayers and our thoughts are with you constantly.”
The next day, Melissa Alexander gave her first nationally televised interview, on MSNBC with anchor Jose Diaz-Balart. She was asked about a rule passed by the GOP leadership barring the display of even small protest signs in the Capitol.
GOP officials had created an uproar last week when they ordered state troopers to forcibly remove people, including Covenant mothers, from a committee room for holding up signs.
“We want to preserve the dignity of the Covenant school victims,” Alexander said into the camera, holding up a small sign that said “Covenant Parent for Gun Safety. “This was the way that we felt that we could identify ourselves peacefully, quietly in these meetings.”
After the ACLU filed suit challenging the no-sign rule last week, a judge issued an order blocking the legislature from enforcing it.
Alexander later testified before a House subcommittee considering a bill that would allow people with firearms training, such as law enforcement officers or members of the military, to carry guns at schools, athletic fields or other school-related sites.
Alexander told lawmakers that more guns in schools would create an even more dangerous situation.
“Surviving isn’t the goal here,” she said. “We want to prevent these shootings, and I’m begging you to vote no on this bill.”
The bill passed the subcommittee along party lines. But later in the day it died when a different committee deadlocked, 9-9, with five Republicans voting against it.
The bill failed partly over Republican concerns that it conflicted with another bill regarding armed school resource officers.
But Alexander said she believed all the activism by her and the other Covenant parents, plus those from Moms Demand Action and other groups, had also helped kill the bill.
“We knew that we had made a difference and we were just so happy,” she said in an interview. “We knew if we hadn’t been there in those committee rooms testifying over and over again, if we hadn’t been there to stand up against it, it might have passed.”
Rep. John Gillespie, one of the Republicans who voted against the bill, agreed. “I think they were very helpful and hope they testify again if that bill is brought up again in January,” he said in an email after the session ended Tuesday.
On Wednesday, Alexander said she was looking forward to getting back to her normal life, which now included digging in for a long political fight ahead on gun issues.
“This has been a crash course in the legislative process,” she said. “We now understand the importance of primaries. And, as I said in a press conference, ‘Look at these faces up here. Look at these faces. You will see them again, and again and again.’”