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The Big Story: Despite shooting, hope fades for gun laws in Tennessee special session – The Washington Post

“Tennessee is one of the deadliest states for gun violence, according to Everytown for Gun Safety, which advocates for gun control and analyzes state measures, and the Covenant School shooting has done little to alter support for gun rights among conservative legislators.”

What we can learn from Tennessee’s response to the murder of its children

By David Jarrard and Anne Hancock Toomey

3.5-minute read

It is a master class in squandering.

In a state that is fire engine red, Tennessee’s lawmakers entered an historic moment last week to demonstrate a modicum of leadership to curb the healthcare crisis that is gun violence.

The special session of the Tennessee state legislature to discuss gun safety – called in the wake of the Covenant School shooting – continues this week. The expected results are paltry in the face of the opportunity they have had and the challenge they face.

Though statewide polling and the raised voices reflected bipartisan support for meaningful firearms safety reform, the lawmakers chose to be meaningless. And they are largely succeeding.

There are two failures, really, from last week.

First, legislators failed on the specifics by rejecting consequential measures to address the worsening healthcare epidemic of gun violence.

Second – and more damning – they failed to lead. They declined to do the hard things – to have the tough conversations, to make the difficult decisions, to draw opposites together and forward.

Instead of binding and healing, they left wounds open. They deliberately missed the moment.

This matters to all of us dedicated to a mission of making healthcare better. 

Gun violence cries out for action in every state. Your ER and your security drills and your news feed bring the issue to your doors with unfortunate regularity. A missed opportunity in Tennessee is maddening.

There is a palpable need for true leadership. Everywhere, it seems. In our country. In healthcare writ large. In your health system. In your practice.

Anti-Lessons in Leadership

On the important question of leadership, Tennessee’s lawmakers offered some worst practices last week.

You know the background. Tennessee lawmakers were hauled into special session in response to the shooting deaths of three nine-year-old children and three adults last March at The Covenant School in Nashville.

The murders galvanized support for gun violence legislation. Vigils were held. New organizations formed. Adults and children rallied to form a 10,000+ person human chain that stretched the miles between the ER where the victims were taken to the doors of the state capitol. Statewide polls reflected bipartisan support for consequential reforms.

Yet, from the start of last week’s special session, the lawmakers’ apparent goal for the meeting was its rapid conclusion.

Over the four days they met last week, the lawmakers ejected the quiet mothers of the Covenant School, banned opposing voices and made mostly hand-waving legislative gestures at the plague of violence.

To be clear: It’s not that the lawmakers will have done absolutely nothing. On their list before they adjourn next week: A restriction on access to autopsy photos. A slight expansion of background checks. Some investment in mental health. An offer of free locks for gun storage (affirming, really, a program that is already in place and locks that are already purchased). That’s it.

“It was clear from the start that the GOP wasn’t going to do much to try to address anything directly having to do with gun control, a third-rail subject for many conservatives,” wrote the Wall Street Journal. “The fact that the tragedy occurred in Nashville — which isn’t home to a single Republican member of the General Assembly — also relieved most local pressure for Republicans to cast a politically unpopular vote.”

It’s for good reason that frustrated observers sitting in the gallery of the State Senate last week were escorted from the chambers shouting “You’ve done nothing! You’ve done nothing!”

You may think that, on occasion, the best response from the government to an issue is no action at all. To stay out of it. On occasion, that might be right (though clearly not in this case). But, even in those moments, the opportunity for leadership is ever present.

So, what lessons – or anti-lessons — can leaders learn from last week’s leadership vacuum? Here are three:

Know what time it is.

  • The Anti-Lesson – Tennessee leaders had a mission, and they chose not to accept it. The Covenant School shooting created a terrible wave of political “permission” for change, a sea change for the serious consideration of new options that would have been dismissed out of hand in the days before it. You know what these moments feel like, when the tide slightly turns, when the winds shift. Lawmakers felt it, saw it, measured it…and flat out ignored it.
  • The Lesson – True leaders are watchful for opportunities for positive change. They move when the door cracks open to propel organizations and peoples and states forward. They are looking for them; they create them, too. They recognize these slivers are brief and do not guarantee safety or success. After all, there are no risk-free decisions. Nonetheless, leaders act when the time is right.

Have the conversation.

  • The Anti-Lesson – While it’s legal to carry sidearms in Tennessee’s legislative plaza, parents were booted off the grounds for carrying “dangerous” ideas. Mothers of gun violence victims were ejected for brandishing 8.5”x 11” signs that said things like “Kids are more important than guns” and “My child’s first school shooting.” There was no conversation or, even, the theater of trying.
  • The Lesson – True leaders do the hard work of listening and engaging. On tough issues, you may never reach consensus or settle all disagreements. That’s not the point. Listening well to others, expressing your convictions clearly and confidently, shoving ideas around in a marketplace of ideas, is the crucible for today’s effective leadership. Leaders welcome it.

Leaders are seen leading. 

  • The Anti-Lesson – Gov. Bill Lee called the special session but was publicly invisible for the very conversation he created. No member of the General Assembly stepped into the leadership vacuum. Without a center of gravity, consequential initiatives were untethered and flew away.
  • The Lesson – True leadership is the visible, muscular activity of presence and persuasion. Listening, engaging, watching, opining, meeting, deciding. Yes, a leader’s absence can be its own message, but it’s rare that such an abdication strengthens an organization or a state. Leaders quite visibly lead, especially when it’s hard or unpopular. That’s the job.

Tennessee’s special session of its General Assembly offers a high-profile opportunity for courageous leadership on a complex issue in a hothouse, mistrustful, hyperbolic, vulnerable political environment.

Guess who taught a masterclass? The Covenant parents and other reform advocates. Filling the leadership vacuum with their voices. Their non-partisanship. Their perseverance. Their hope.

“We fully understand the importance of primaries,” Covenant moms, local clergy and other gun-safety advocates vowed to The Tennessean. “You will see these faces again.”

To meet this moment would have been hard, risky work for the legislature, yet it has been what’s  most needed on this matter and a host of others. The great value of good leadership was noticeable in its absence.

There is a hunger for powerful, effective, passionate leadership, at every level, in every organization. We need every good lesson, every good example we can muster. This wasn’t that.

Contributors: Emme Baxter, David Shifrin and Dan Schlacter
Image Credit: Shannon Threadgill