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In session reacting to school shooting, Tennessee GOP lawmaker orders removal of public from hearing

Aug 22, 2023, 3:18 PM | Updated: Aug 23, 2023, 4:22 am

A demonstrator holds a sign for law makers to see during the House Higher Education Subcommittee du...

A demonstrator holds a sign for law makers to see during the House Higher Education Subcommittee during a special session of the state legislature on public safety Tuesday, Aug. 22, 2023, in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/George Walker IV)
Credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS

(AP Photo/George Walker IV)

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Families close to a Nashville fatal school shooting broke down in tears Tuesday after a Tennessee Republican leader ordered state troopers to remove them and others from a legislative hearing room while they waited to testify in favor of gun control measures.

The emotional scene was just one of several chaotic moments that erupted during the second day of Tennessee’s special legislative session. Republican Gov. Bill Lee initially called lawmakers back to the Capitol to consider his proposal to keep firearms away from dangerous people.

“I was supposed to speak, I was supposed to testify,” said Sarah Shoop Neumann, sobbing and shaking in front of the silent GOP-controlled House subcommittee room, which was cleared out after some clapping from the public gallery, even though she sat quietly and wasn’t holding any signs.

As a parent whose child attends The Covenant School, Neumann is among the family members desperately attempting to address the state’s relaxed gun laws after a shooter opened fire inside their school and killed three children and three adults. She was later allowed back to testify against a bill that allows for more teachers to carry guns at school. The House subcommittee advanced the bill, though its odds appear longer in the Senate.

“We’re just trying to do something,” Neumann later told reporters, as other Covenant parents huddled around her. “It’s overwhelming.”

However, Lee’s bill has been all but defeated by the Republican supermajority, where legislative leaders have largely refused to consider the issue. Without any debate, three variations of similar proposals for so-called extreme risk protection orders, or ERPOs, carried by Democratic Rep. Bob Freeman of Nashville, immediately failed Tuesday in the same House subcommittee where the public was kicked out.

On the first day of the special session on Monday, House Republicans advanced a new set of procedural rules that carried harsh penalties for lawmakers deemed too disruptive or distracting, and banned visitors from carrying signs inside the Capitol and in legislative hearing rooms. The Senate and House also signed off on severely limiting the public from accessing the galleries where people have traditionally been allowed to watch their government in action.

The actions come after the Tennessee Republicans attracted national attention for expelling two young Black Democratic lawmakers earlier this year for breaking House rules during a demonstration in support of gun control. Reps. Justin Jones and Justin Pearson have since been reinstated to their positions, but the actions sent shock waves about the Republican supermajority’s ability to hand down strict punishments to opponents.

Yet protestors on Tuesday found ways to defy the new sign ban, showing up to the House chamber with pro-gun control messages written on their bodies and clothes. Others wrote out messages on their phones and held them up for lawmakers to see.

That defiance faced a harsher response as lawmakers broke out into committee rooms to begin debating legislation.

Allison Polidor, a gun control advocate from Nashville, was escorted out of a hearing room because she was holding a sign that said, “1 KID” is greater than “ALL THE GUNS.”

“I wasn’t saying anything. I wasn’t doing anything. I was holding up a sign,” Polidor told reporters outside the room.

Rep. Lowell Russell, the Republican subcommittee chairman, had also warned that he could order everyone out of the room.

Shortly after, another Republican lawmaker said his bill was stalled that would let people with handgun carry permits bring guns onto K-12 and college school property if they know the school doesn’t have armed security. That announcement sparked some gun control advocates in the crowd to break out in applause.

“Are we going to quiet down and listen, or are we going to sit there and clap?” Russell said.

When some kept clapping, Russell said, “Alright, troopers, let’s go ahead and clear the room.”

Members of the media were allowed to stay, and some members of the public who were testifying on legislation were allowed in.

“We gave them three or four times to not do outbursts in the committee hearing, and unfortunately they continued after three, maybe four warnings,” Russell told The Associated Press afterward. “So unfortunately, that’s just the way it goes, if they don’t follow the rules.”

After the public was kicked out, Neumann was allowed to return to testify against the bill that allows for more armed teachers. She said the Covenant teachers’ hands were shaking so badly that day while trying to keep the children quiet, safe, hidden and secure that they couldn’t have handled a firearm.

“They are heroes. They enacted every protocol in place perfectly,” Neumann said. “And they could not have done those things if they were also meant to be armed and go out and attack the shooter.”

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In session reacting to school shooting, Tennessee GOP lawmaker orders removal of public from hearing