NASHVILLE — Dear Gov. Bill Lee,
For more than 24 hours, I waited for you to speak to the people of Tennessee about the massacre of Nashville schoolchildren and the adults who gave their lives trying to keep them safe. These were your citizens. These children were your children. This shattered faith community is exactly the kind of community that gives you solace in your own moments of fear and despair. What would you say to them? To us?
What promises of reform would you offer? What vows before God that nothing like this would ever happen to another family on your watch? To another innocent child?
I waited to hear.
I have never had any reason to believe that you would represent my own views and my own values in the governance of this state, but I still had hope that the murder of children would have the power, however temporarily, to carry us to common ground. God help me, I still had enough faith in your humanity to hope that you might be moved by the obliterated bodies of these tiny Tennesseans to do something. To lead us somewhere better. At the very least to promise that you would try.
For more than 24 hours, you did not speak.
I live in a quiet neighborhood. In that quiet, it is possible to hear sirens from miles away. When the sirens started Monday, I was standing in my front yard talking to a friend. At first I didn’t even register the keening, but almost immediately it became an uncountable number of sirens. Police sirens and fire engine sirens and the heart-chilling sound of ambulance sirens.
For two hours, Governor Lee, it was nothing but sirens. Sirens going and sirens coming. Sirens loud enough to be heard indoors, and from every room in the house. Sirens in the background of every phone call that morning, as people kept checking in to compare notes. What have you heard?
That many sirens can mean only one thing, I knew, but I prayed with every cell in my body to be wrong about that. Please, God, not a school. There are so many schools in the first-ring suburbs — public and private schools, preschools and elementary schools, middle schools and high schools. Please, God, let it be none of them. Please, not one of them.
Do you know what people do after a sudden loss like this, Governor? They question every single choice they have ever made. They lie in the dark and wonder how one little shift in the trajectory of time might have led to some other outcome. Would a different school have been safer? What if I’d believed that story about a stomach ache? Should I have kept them home with me, never let them leave my side? Should I have quit my job and home-schooled them?
This is the heartbreak after the heartbreak — the way we all think it might have been our own fault somehow. Whatever terrible thing has happened, we find a way to make it our own fault. Everyone who has lived through a sudden loss knows that. I thought for sure you knew it, too.
However distant we might be from the epicenter of that school and the survivors whose lives will never, ever be the same, we are all broken by these images. Oh, those tiny, tiny children! Oh, their beautiful, beautiful protectors! How could we have saved them? What could we possibly have done to save them?
Every parent in the country, and everyone who isn’t a parent, too, is asking these questions. What can I do to be sure another child isn’t next? Why aren’t you asking it?
I ask it all the time, and I don’t even have school-age children. I ask because my husband is a teacher, because our son is a teacher, because my brother is a teacher and my sister is a teacher and my oldest and closest friends — here in Nashville and around the country — are teachers.
I am proud of all the people I love who have given their lives to teaching, but I am so afraid for them. I lie awake in fear for them. A person who accepts the immense challenges of teaching children shouldn’t be obliged to accept the responsibility of shielding them from bullets, too. And yet every teacher does exactly that. Every single one of them scans every classroom they enter, looking for the hiding places, testing the locks on doors.
There’s nothing they can do to keep their students, or their own children, from being next. But you could, Governor Lee, if you wanted to. You may be the only one in this entire state who could do something to protect our children. You could do it, if you wanted to.
You could support legislation that would ban assault weapons. I’m not so naïve as to believe that banning assault weapons would prevent all school shootings, but it would prevent many, many deaths. It would slow the rampage. It would give police officers — who even more than teachers are called to put their lives on the line to protect us — a fighting chance. Weapons of war do not belong in the hands of civilians. We all know that. You know that.
I’m not trying to talk you out of your support for gun rights, Governor Lee. You wouldn’t need to back down on gun rights. We can argue till kingdom come about background checks and registration requirements and gun safes and biometric trigger locks, and I’d be very happy to talk with you about all the safety measures you could support that would honor your commitment to gun rights and public safety both.
It was never likely that events this week would change your commitment to serving up every item on the gun lobby’s agenda, I admit, but I still had hope. There’s nothing “other” about this school community to hide behind, no way to pass it off as something that only happens in other places. Maybe you would see it this time. Maybe it would be personal this time. I kept hoping that your delay in responding was a sign that you were gathering the courage to do the right thing.
You weren’t, though. When you finally spoke, it was not to introduce a plan to reduce gun violence and prevent the slaughter of our community’s beloved children. When you finally spoke, it was to say nothing at all.
Margaret Renkl, a contributing Opinion writer, is the author of the books “Graceland, at Last: Notes on Hope and Heartache From the American South” and “Late Migrations: A Natural History of Love and Loss.”
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