Voices for a Safer Tennessee, a non-partisan coalition dedicated to prioritizing gun safety and advocating for common sense gun laws, held a forum on Faith, Firearms and Community Safety in Columbia on Wednesday, July 26.
Those in attendance included Columbia Mayor Chaz Molder, State Rep. Scott Cepicky and State Sen. Joey Hensley, among other elected officials.
The panel discussion was held just weeks before a special called session of the General Assembly on public safety, which is scheduled for Aug. 21.
In May, Gov. Bill Lee announced his plans for a special legislation session to strengthen public safety and preserve constitutional rights, according to an announcement made by the governor’s office.
Lee’s announcement came just over a month after the March 27 Covenant School shooting, which left three children and three adults dead, including two friends of Lee’s wife.
Days after the shooting, Voices for a Safer Tennessee was formed in an effort to make the state safer through legislative action on gun safety.
Todd Cruse, chairman and treasurer for Voices for a Safer Tennessee, said he became involved after learning one of his neighbors lost their daughter in the shooting.
“That was heartbreaking because I couldn’t imagine if it was my kids,” Cruse said.
“Having the discussion with our children about what happened, that was tough. For me, that’s what said something has to change.”
The nonpartisan, nonprofit grassroots coalition outlines four separate gun safety policy reforms that the Tennessee General Assembly should consider: enact protection orders for persons showing elevated risk of harming themselves or others, implement child access prevention and safe storage laws, expand background checks to all firearm purchases and require firearm safety courses for ownership.
“Understanding what laws exist is important,” Cruse said during the forum, which was held at First Presbyterian Church. “If you buy a firearm in Tennessee, you do have to get a background check, but that’s if you go to a certain dealer that sells firearms. There are challenges with our background check system, it’s just broken. Fixing the background check problem is step one.”
Panelists also spoke on data released by the CDC, which shows firearms are the leading cause of death for US children and teens ages 1-19, surpassing motor vehicle accidents and those caused by other injuries, as of 2020.
“There is this concern that firearm incidents are the number one cause of death for children in this state,” Cruse said. “That’s a sobering statistic. It’s around common sense. It’s around secure storage. If you own a gun, store it. Know how to store it, know how to use it.”
The issue of mental health was also brought up, including the need for extra resources in the state.
Panelist CW Ball, a family physician and former medical director at Maury Regional Hospital, said mental health has been ignored by the nation for many years.
“We need to spend more; we need to put more people out there that can be counselors,” Ball said. “We need to have more availability for people because it’s always been a challenge as a physician to try to find mental health services for people.”
Event moderator Rev. Trent Ogilvie, who is the CEO and Executive Director of Columbia Housing and Redevelopment Corporation, noted research which has shown only 4 percent of community violence is attributed to severe mental disorders.
“When 20 percent of people have a mental health diagnosis in this country, they’re not 20 percent dangerous people,” Ball said. “On the other side of the coin, there are people who have borderline personalities and again, they don’t value life. Those are the kind of people that we say don’t need to be around a firearm because they can be dangerous people. It’s a small amount, but it’s horrendous if things happen that way.”
Rev. Russ Adcox, lead pastor at Maury Hills Church and panelist, spoke on the need for more churches to recognize mental health.
“For years there’s been a stigma associated with mental health issues among people of faith,” Adcox said. “The more churches can recognize and acknowledge that; it helps people get help. Sometimes you go to your pastor, and they say you need to pray more, or you need more faith, and I absolutely do believe in the role of faith and prayer, but I also believe there are people who need to seek professional help and medication.”
When asked about the pushback Lee has received from many Republicans following his call for the special session, Cruse said the organizations pushing back aren’t looking at the facts.
“Some have pushed back on any common-sense gun reform, believing it’s a slippery slope. If anything passes, it will lead to even more restrictions,” Cruse said.
“I think what we find is sometimes these organizations that push back, and they push back loudly, or they try to bully people into the right answer don’t have facts to back it up. Data doesn’t lie. There are pragmatic safety solutions that can allow firearm safety to exist just like car and car safety exists.”
Speaking on the upcoming special session, Cruse said he feels optimistic, though it won’t be a fast process.
“This is not going to get solved in August,” he said. “This probably isn’t going to get solved in 2024, but we have to keep the conversation alive. We have to keep the ball moving forward.”
In a statement following the panel, Molder said he appreciated that the county’s legislative delegation was present.
“The fact our legislative delegation was present tells us they are willing to listen,” Molder said. “One thing that seems pretty clear is an overwhelming amount of Tennesseans support some of the initiatives being discussed relative to this upcoming special session.”
For more information on Voices for a Safer Tennessee, visit www.safertn.org.