Gov. Lee says wife was friends of 2 shooting victims

Maria Lee was to have dinner with one of the victims on Monday night.
Maria Lee, wife of Gov. Bill Lee, taught with Cindy Peak and Katherine Koonce, who were killed in a shooting at Covenant School on Monday.
Published: Mar. 28, 2023 at 7:54 PM CDT|Updated: Mar. 29, 2023 at 5:53 AM CDT
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NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WSMV) - Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee released a statement on Tuesday about the shooting Monday at The Covenant School.

As part of the statement, Lee said his wife Maria was going to have dinner Monday night with Cindy Peak, one of the shooting victims, and had taught with both Peak and Katherine Koonce, Covenant’s Head of School who died in the shooting.

“What happened at Covenant School was a tragedy beyond comprehension. Like many of you, I’ve experienced tragedy in my own life, and I’ve experienced the day after that tragedy. I woke up this morning with a very familiar feeling, and I recognize that today many Tennesseans are feeling the exact same way – the emptiness, the lack of understanding, the desperate desire for answers and the desperate need for hope.”

Lee said Peak was one of his wife’s best friends.

“Cindy was supposed to come over to have dinner with Maria last night after she filled in as a substitute teacher yesterday at Covenant,” Lee said.

Lee said Peak, Koonce and his wife were all teachers at the same school and have been family friends for decades.

“Four other Tennesseans and members of the Covenant family – Hallie Scruggs, Evelyn Dieckhaus, William Kinney and Mike Hill – were taken in a horrific act of violence,” Lee said. “Six innocent lives – three of them were children.”

In the video, Lee said now is now the time to discuss and debate policy.

“There will come a time to ask how a person could do this. There will come a time to discuss and debate policy,” the governor said. “But this is not a time for hate or rage. That will not resolve or heal. Everyone is hurting and remembering that as we grieve and walk together will be the way we honor those who lost.”

Lee said he had spoken with Metro Nashville Police Officers Rex Engelbert and Michael Collazo to thank them for their actions inside the school on Monday.

“Gratitude doesn’t begin to cover it – for the utter selflessness of putting their lives between a killer and the innocent,” Lee said.

Lee said in the message that every human life has great value.

“We can all agree on one thing – that every human life has great value. We will act to prevent this from happening again. There is a clear desire in all of us, whether we agree on the action steps of not, that we must work to find ways to protect against evil,” Lee said.

Lee did not detail what action he would propose to prevent another school shooting from happening.

In 2019, Lee told religious leaders he believed if Tennesseans prayed to God to favor the state, God would answer those prayers – ranging from diminishing the state’s opioid epidemic and improving Tennessee’s educational outcomes to avoiding school shootings, according to an Associated Press report.

But last year, when asked if he would support restricting firearms in response to recent mass shootings across the U.S., Lee voiced his opposition.

“We can’t control what we can’t control,” Lee said in the days following the shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas.

Instead, Lee signed an executive order calling for enhanced safety measures, but without any mention of guns. He has also called for adding a school resource officer in every school while stating that he has not considered arming teachers to help boost school security.

“I am calling on the people of Tennessee to pray. For the families of victims, for the Covenant family, for those courageous officers, for the family of the shooter, for those who are hurting and angry and confused,” Lee said. “Prayer is the first thing we should do, but it’s not the only thing.”

The governor said law enforcement officials and educators have been working for years, especially in the last year, to strengthen the safety of schools.

“That work was not in vain – the courage and swift response by the teachers, officers and this community without a doubt prevented further tragedy,” Lee said.

The governor said again the time is not now to talk about the legislation and budget proposals.

“There will be a time to talk about the legislation and budget proposals we’ve brought forward this year. And clearly there’s more work to do,” Lee said. “But on this day after the tragedy, I want to speak to that which rises above all else.

“The battle is not against flesh and blood. It’s not against people. The struggle is against evil itself. We can’t forget this – and it’s very difficult – but we are called to not only love our neighbors but to love our enemies, to bless those who curse us, to pray for those who intend harm. There is hope in the midst of great tragedy because God is a redeemer. What is meant for evil can be turned for good.”

Already this year, Republican lawmakers have introduced bills that would make it easier to arm teachers and allow college students to carry weapons on campus. Democratic-led efforts to strengthen gun safety measures have faltered. On Tuesday, lawmakers delayed taking up any of the contentious gun-related bills, saying they wanted to offer respect to the community.

The most significant movement involves the state’s permitless carry law. In 2021, Republican Gov. Bill Lee led the charge to allow most adults 21 and older to carry handguns without first obtaining a permit that requires clearing a state background check and training. Thereafter, gun manufacturer Smith & Wesson announced plans to relocate its headquarters to Tennessee due to the state’s “support for the 2nd Amendment.”

Nevertheless, the law was met with a lawsuit from a gun rights group arguing the minimum age should be 18. By late last year, Tennessee Attorney General Jonathan Skrmetti’s office negotiated a settlement rather than defend the law, citing last year’s U.S. Supreme Court ruling expanding gun rights.

Skrmetti proposed a deal to allow 18- to 20-year-olds to carry handguns publicly. That agreement was approved Monday — the same day a 28-year-old former student shot through the doors of a Christian elementary school in Nashville and killed three children and three adults.

Skrmetti’s office declined to comment on the settlement.

Meanwhile, Republican lawmakers are moving to change the law so it reflects the court deal. The legislation is still making its way through the Capitol.

The Tennessee Highway Patrol had already stopped enforcing the prohibition for 18 to 20-year-olds to carry handguns without a permit before the judge signed off on the settlement, Department of Safety lobbyist Elizabeth Stroecker told lawmakers last week.

Separately, Tennessee does not have a “red flag” law, which allows police to take firearms away from people who threaten to kill. On Tuesday, Metropolitan Nashville Police Chief John Drake said the suspect in Monday’s shooting, 28-year-old Audrey Hale, was under the care of a doctor for an “emotional disorder” but no law is currently in place that would have allowed authorities to confiscate the weapons Hale had purchased.

Associated Press contributed to this report.