One Grieving Mother Hasn’t Given Up Hope for a Gun Control Compromise


The essence of Evelyn Dieckhaus is still there, captured in the pink Bible where she underlined the word “covenant” in silver ink, and in the beaming photos of her with her family.

It is there in her journal, recovered from the scene of the Covenant School mass shooting, where Evelyn, 9, had copied out by hand a New Testament verse about maintaining sympathy, tenderness and humility.

Her mother, Katy Dieckhaus, has since placed those pieces of her daughter’s memory into what she calls her “little Ev bag,” which she has carried with her as she take her first steps into the intractable debate over gun control in Tennessee.

“I just thought, ‘O.K., Ev, let’s go — let’s go try something,’” Ms. Dieckhaus said this week, holding back tears as she recalled her first meeting with lawmakers. “Let’s go try to help people work together. Let’s see what we can do.”

Ms. Dieckhaus and her husband, Mike, have rarely spoken publicly since their daughter and five others were killed at the Covenant School in Nashville on March 27, 2023. But they are now stepping forward at a moment when Tennessee remains deeply divided on whether to limit access to guns.

Despite a groundswell of pressure from gun control protesters after the shooting, the Republican-dominated legislature has still proven reluctant to impose new barriers to firearm access. While gun control advocates were encouraged by an August special session called to address public safety, Republicans did not pass any restrictions on firearm access. At the time, State Representative Jeremy Faison, a member of Republican leadership, said “we carried out what we believed the voice of Tennessee was for each one of our districts.”

Lawmakers have shown some willingness to respond to the circumstances at Covenant, including by passing a bill this year requiring schools to establish procedures in case a fire alarm is triggered by a shooter.

A few other bills — a measure that would make it a felony to threaten to commit an act of mass violence and the governor’s proposal to boost funding for the agency in charge of processing background checks — are still being considered.

Yet the chasm between those who see gun rights as a sacred aspect of American identity, and those eager to ban the most deadly of weapons, still yawns in Tennessee, which has steadily loosened its gun laws and rebuffed any perception of infringement on the Second Amendment. That enmity flared into the expulsion of two Black Democrats who had led a gun control protest from the floor of the House.

To shield their family — particularly their older daughter, who survived the shooting — from the debate and hold onto hope for some change, Ms. Dieckhaus and her husband have chosen to focus on modest proposals in their state.

They join a long line of parents, who have suffered the loss of a child in a school shooting and channeled their grief into pleas for change. After Parkland, Fla., parents went to the White House and called to either toughen school security or restrict firearm access. Parents of children at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut formed a nonprofit aimed at preventing gun violence. And in Uvalde, Texas, the mother of one slain student mounted a bid, though unsuccessful, for mayor.

In Nashville, the effort has been led by parents of surviving students, some of whom are gun owners and conservatives. They, their friends and other parents have filled the halls of the State Capitol and formed new groups like Rise & Shine Tennessee or Voices for a Safer Tennessee, the nonpartisan nonprofit that Ms. Dieckhaus has joined as a board member.

“We’re in it for the long haul,” Mr. Dieckhaus said. “We’ve lost so much, and we have another daughter who we want to protect, along with all other people.”

On Wednesday, many of those newfound allies and friends are expected to gather and link arms from Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt to the State Capitol more than five miles away, in honor of the three third graders and three staff members killed at Covenant, as well as other gun violence victims in the state.

In taking the first steps into advocacy, the Dieckhauses have been drawn to the policy and focus of Voices for a Safer Tennessee. That nonprofit advocates for toughening background changes and requiring the safe storage of guns in cars. It is also in favor of a law that would allow the temporary removal of firearms from a person who a court finds to be a threat to themselves or others.

Their process, the two parents have decided, will be to speak of their childhoods in small town Missouri, but not divulge any political leaning or stance to avoid taking away from the work at hand.

“We want respectful conversations to happen,” Ms. Dieckhaus said, “and we don’t want people to feel like they have to shy away from that.”

And they will share the memories of Evelyn. To speak of Evelyn in the past is still hard, so Ms. Dieckhaus will sometimes linger on the present tense: she is kind, she gets her work done early, she has a spicy side.

“I have wanted to try to find ways that we can slow down the bleeding and such heartbreak,” Ms. Dieckhaus said. She added, “I have so much to learn still.”

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