NASHVILLE — If you drive through the neighborhoods on my side of town, you’ll see red bows decorating mailboxes and schools and churches and storefronts. Mailbox after mailbox, bow after bow. Even the local liquor store is decorated with a red bow. To visitors, I’m sure it’s a matter for curiosity: Christmas decorations during the green month of May?
It begins to make sense when you notice that many of the bows include a few black ribbons, too. Sometimes there are also signs that say, “I Stand With Covenant” or “Covenant Strong.” Some of the signs include the names of the children and staff members who were killed in the shooting at the nearby Covenant School on March 27. The bows refer to Covenant’s school colors.
It has been six weeks since that terrible day, and in that time, dozens of shootings have happened in every sort of place where unsuspecting people go to conduct their daily lives. At the bank. At the park. At the doctor’s office. At home. At the houses where friends live. And, on Saturday, at a shopping mall outside Dallas, where a shooter took the lives of at least eight people before a police officer killed him.
In the way of all tragedies that touch nearby but do not touch us personally, life has carried on mostly as usual here in Nashville. New yard signs have sprouted beside the old yard signs now, new bows alongside the old bows. “Congratulations, Class of 2023!” the new signs say. These are the homes where children managed to survive childhood in the gun-soaked state of Tennessee.
The mailbox that most breaks my heart is the one where the red and black bow is hanging just behind a new pink bow. In the weeks since the shooting, that family has welcomed a new baby girl.
The whole tableau of our national tragedy is visible on that mailbox: a family mourning other families’ children while simultaneously welcoming a new child of their own. Could anything be more American? The belief in the possibility of new life even as reminders of the ceaseless, senseless loss of life are everywhere around us?
And yet, despite the reminders, despite the gun violence that erupts every single day in communities nearby and far away, I am feeling more hopeful than I have ever felt. We are not yet in a safer place with guns, but this time the whole tenor of the conversation is different here in the red states. Surely, we have finally reached a tipping point. Surely, this time our elected officials are closer to doing something to keep us safe.
People in power do not willingly hear the objections of those they are subjugating, but sometimes they can be shamed. Sometimes, they can be overwhelmed by public sentiment, and we are fighting here in Tennessee.
I wish you could have seen the crowds demanding sensible gun legislation and supporting the Democratic representatives Justin Jones, Gloria Johnson and Justin J. Pearson, who weeks ago defied Republicans to demand gun reform from the House floor. Day upon day during the final weeks of the legislative session, the crowds were there, filling the statehouse halls and grounds.
I wish you could have seen the human chain that reached from Vanderbilt’s Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital, where the children killed at Covenant were taken after they were shot, to the statehouse, where Republican legislators repeatedly refused to consider any gun-reform measure. Wearing red in support of Covenant School, some 8,500 Nashvillians gathered arm-in-arm in a chain stretching three miles to make legislators see that voters are united on this issue, Republicans and Democrats alike.
People still stop me on the street to thank me for the open letter to Gov. Bill Lee that I wrote the week of the shooting. These are my friends and my neighbors, the parents whose children grew up with mine, the adults my husband taught when they were teenagers, and I know them. Many are deeply conservative. Many have never agreed with another word I’ve written for this newspaper. But no one, right or left, wants to keep seeing innocent people slaughtered with guns that never should have been in the hands of civilians in the first place.
“Up until April of this year, my 76th to be exact, I labeled myself a Republican,” wrote Sandy Dickerson in a guest column for The Tennessean. “I can no longer align myself with a party that apparently values fire power over the lives of children.”
In a new Vanderbilt University poll, the vast majority of Tennesseans — including a majority of self-described MAGA Republicans and N.R.A. supporters — expressed support for several legislative approaches to gun reform, including strengthening background checks, passing a red-flag law and requiring secure storage of firearms.
Bill Frist, the former U.S. senator — a Republican, gun-owner and surgeon — wrote an essay for Forbes in which he laid out a nonpartisan plan for saving lives by being smarter about gun rights. The “misuse of guns has grown much worse, substantially worse — with markedly more death and tragedy in our neighborhoods, than even a decade ago,” he wrote. “This demands a fresh look, free of past biases and partisan tones which have ruled so much of our earlier discussions and debate.”
Most amazingly, Gov. Bill Lee signed an executive order strengthening background checks and called for legislators to pass a red flag law. “When there is a clear need for action, I think that we have an obligation,” he said, “to remind people that we should set aside politics and pride and accomplish something that the people of Tennessee want us to accomplish”
It was a dramatic about-face for the Republican governor, who once went to a gun factory to sign into law a bill that made Tennessee’s lax gun laws even more permissive. Unsurprisingly, legislators in his own party shot down the proposed red flag law, cutting the legislative session short and then claiming that two days was not sufficient time to study a 15-page bill adequately.
Mr. Lee responded by announcing that he would be calling legislators back for a special session to address gun violence in the state.
I never put a bow on my mailbox after the shooting at Covenant School, because I knew the time would come when the bows would have to come down. I couldn’t bear to think about how grieving families would feel to see those bows disappearing from mailboxes. To see those yard signs sticking out of trash bins at the curb.
Even so, I’m heartened by all these bows and signs, because I know the reminders are continually renewing our resolve to keep pressing for justice, to keep fighting for change. The gun lobby is counting on Americans to do what we have always done after a tragedy like this. They know we will grieve, they know we will clamor for change, and they know, too, that one day the bows will come down and all but the unluckiest among us will move on.
But this time feels different. The polls; the daily demonstrations during the legislative session; the courage of Justin Jones, Gloria Johnson and Justin J. Pearson; our governor’s new impulse toward fairer gun laws — it all gives me more hope than I have had in some time.
Call that special session, Governor Lee. Whatever your party’s legislators might try to argue, an astonishing 82 percent of Tennesseans have your back.
Margaret Renkl, a contributing Opinion writer, is the author of the books “Graceland, at Last” and “Late Migrations.” Her next book, “The Comfort of Crows: A Backyard Year,” will be published in October.
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