East Tennessee church hosts community conversation to promote gun safety

By Shireen Korkzan
Posted Nov 9, 2023

Todd Cruse, board chairman of Voices for a Safer Tennessee, and Katy Dieckhaus, a mother whose 9-year-old daughter Evelyn was among the six victims killed at The Covenant School on March 27, 2023, in Nashville, Tennessee, speak at a community conversation promoting gun safety on Nov. 8, 2023. Church of the Good Shepherd, an East Tennessee Episcopal parish in Lookout Mountain, provided space in its sanctuary for the community to host the conversation. Photo: Mark Drury

[Episcopal News Service] Church of the Good Shepherd in Lookout Mountain, Tennessee, provided space in its sanctuary to promote gun safety on Nov. 8 for Voices for a Safer Tennessee and Neighbors for Gun Violence Prevention, two state-based nonpartisan gun safety advocacy groups. 

The community conversation, which was also livestreamed, was planned in response to the mass shooting at The Covenant School in Nashville, where a gunman killed three children and three adults earlier this year.

Church of the Good Shepherd operates an extended daycare program for children 3 months to 5 years old. It hosted the conversation with community and child safety in mind.

“If I can make our space safer for all the children that come through here, then I think I have the moral, spiritual, legal obligation to do that,” the Rev. Robert Childers, rector of Church of the Good Shepherd, told Episcopal News Service before the event.

More than 100 people, including some Good Shepherd parishioners and elected officials, attended the event. Speakers at the event included Natalie Jackson, a Neighbors for Gun Violence Prevention member; Todd Cruse, board chairman of Voices for a Safer Tennessee; and Katy Dieckhaus, a mother whose 9-year-old daughter Evelyn was among the six victims killed at The Covenant School. Dori Thornton Waller, a board member of Voices for a Safer Tennessee, also spoke at the event. Neighbors for Gun Violence is based near Lookout Mountain in the greater Chattanooga area, while Voices for a Safer Tennessee is a statewide organization based in Nashville with more than 20,000 members from all 95 counties.

“This work will take time, and yet it is essential that we cultivate common ground, press on and not lose heart,” Jackson said during the community conversation.

Jackson outlined some of the initiatives Neighbors for Gun Violence Prevention has participated in since it formed last summer in the aftermath of The Covenant School shooting. Since the organization’s first meeting in July, members have met monthly to share resources, listen, learn and engage in dialogue around firearm safety. Members also attended Tennessee’s special legislative session on public safety in August.

“You know what’s constant on almost every single news station almost every single week? There’s a story about something happening with a firearm,” Cruse said during the community conversation. 

On average, 1,385 people die by gun violence in Tennessee annually. In 2021, 54% of gun violence deaths were self-inflicted and 42% were by homicide, according to a 2021 study by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Cruse highlighted three “core items” Voices for a Safer Tennessee focuses on: background checks, secure firearm storage and temporary transfer laws. Under temporary transfer laws — also known as extreme risk laws or red flag laws — law enforcement agencies have the authority to temporarily remove firearms from individuals who are deemed an “imminent risk of causing harm to themselves or others.” 

Currently, 21 states have implemented some form of temporary transfer law, including Florida, Indiana and Virginia. Maine’s more relaxed “yellow flag” law has come under scrutiny in the aftermath of a mass shooting in October that killed 18 people. Under Maine’s law, anyone who’s concerned that a family member could be an “imminent risk” may have them taken into protective custody. From there, a medical professional would have to provide a medical diagnosis for a judge to temporarily confiscate any firearms.

As of Nov. 9, 597 mass shootings have occurred nationwide so far in 2023, according to the Gun Violence Archive, an American nonprofit that catalogs every gun-related death in the U.S. A mass shooting is any shooting in which at least four people are shot.

“Whatever we’ve been doing isn’t working. We’ve got to find solutions, and if we cannot talk to one another civilly, then it’s not going to go well. We can’t keep doing the same thing,” said Sandra Alagona, director of communications and engagement at Church of the Good Shepherd.

Tennessee has the ninth-highest rate of gun violence in the United States, according to the CDC. Tennessee passed a “permitless carry law” in 2021, and since then the legal age to carry a firearm without a permit has decreased from 21 to 18. The state also has the largest number of firearms stolen from vehicles. Between 2017 and 2020, Memphis and Chattanooga had the highest rates of gun thefts from vehicles per 100,000 people, according to a 2017-2020 study by the Federal Bureau of Investigations’ National Incident-Based Reporting.    

“We’re just tired of it, and we’re ready to come together and identify common ground where progress can be made,” said Margy Oehmig, a member of Voices for a Safer Tennessee and a Good Shepherd parishioner.

Event attendees were invited to participate in a Q&A with Cruse. Questions ranged from how to engage in civil dialogue with people who are against gun restrictions, to how to get a Republican-controlled state such as Tennessee to pass firearms legislation.

“My hope is that the community can have an honest conversation, that they can hear Katy Dieckhaus’ story and hear her perspective and how her family has been affected by gun violence,” Alagona said. “If we have people who are coming from different perspectives on this issue, they will discuss sensible ways to address gun violence not just here in Tennessee, but beyond.”

Episcopalians can learn more about the church’s gun control and gun safety prevention legislation dating to 1976 here.

-Shireen Korkzan is a reporter and assistant editor for Episcopal News Service. She can be reached at skorkzan@episcopalchurch.org.