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After mass shooting, Tennessee House moves to expel three members calling for gun control
According to various conservative media outlets, left-wing activists and legislators in Tennessee perpetrated their own version of the January 6 attack last week in Nashville. Fox News reported that "lawmakers joined anti-gun protestors in storming the Capitol last week." The Daily Mail described the protest as an "ongoing insurrection," claiming video footage "shows progressive protesters battling with cops." The Federalist cuts right to the chase with its headline: "After Years Of J6 Fearmongering, Left-Wing Activists Storm Tennessee Capitol While DOJ Stays Silent."
There is just one problem: none of this happened.
Last Thursday, more than 1,000 protesters did come to Tennessee’s state Capitol. The protesters were there to object to the legislature's inaction following the mass shooting at Covenant School in Nashville, which left six people dead. But it was not an insurrection and no one stormed the Capitol. There were no arrests, no violence, no injuries, and no property damage. It was a peaceful protest, largely by high school students, and the participants complied with the law. "We all just want to live through high school," one student protester said.
The crowd began gathering at 8 AM on Thursday morning. Most of the protesters remained outside. A smaller group entered the Capitol building, but they did so legally. The protesters "entered the Capitol building through the west entrance of the second floor." They all were "required to go through security, managed by officers from the Tennessee Highway Patrol." Once inside, the group congregated "in the area outside the House chamber, under a rotunda-like ceiling." Others filled the House gallery.
Members of the Tennessee Highway Patrol (THP) cleared a path through the protesters so that legislators could enter the chamber and, in a few cases, access the restroom. But no protesters "battled" with the THP or were charged with any crime. They had the right to be in the building. THP told The Tennessean that the entire protest was "peaceful."
As the protests continued, the leadership of the Tennessee House was considering unrelated legislation. At one point, three Democratic members — Justin Jones, Justin Pearson, and Gloria Johnson — went to the well of the House chamber without being recognized. Using a bullhorn, they led the protesters in a few chants supporting gun control. The actions of the Democratic members violated the body's rule of decorum but were not in violation of the law.
Protesters were never on the House floor, nor did they attempt to gain access to the floor. Tennessee House Speaker Cameron Sexton (R) recessed the House and ordered security to clear the galleries. The protesters left the galleries willingly.
Nevertheless, Sexton described the incident as "at least the equivalent, maybe worse" than the violent attack on January 6 on the U.S. Capitol. Sexton called the protest "an insurrection" and said the goal of the Democratic legislators was "to incite people… to be disorderly and disruptive." Based on this lie, Sexton and other Republican members of the Tennessee legislature have voted to begin the process of expelling the Democrats who supported the gun control protests from the legislature.
"Inaction is radical"
Tennessee has the “tenth-highest rate of gun deaths” in the United States, with an average of 1,385 people dying by guns every year. Between 2012 and 2021, the rate of gun deaths jumped 52% in the state, “compared to a 39% increase nationwide.”
The state has some of the laxest gun laws in the country. In Tennessee, handgun purchases do not require background checks or training. The state also does not have any “red flag” laws, which restrict gun access for at-risk individuals. In 2021, lawmakers also passed a law “that allowed the permitless carry of handguns, both concealed and unconcealed, for anyone over the age of 21.”
But, for Republican lawmakers, this doesn’t go far enough. This year, they filed a bill to revise the 2021 law and “lower the age to carry a handgun from 21 to 18.” Another bill would also allow long guns, like AR-15s, to be carried in public and there is even one that would permit teachers to carry guns at school.
In a letter to members of the Tennessee House, Pearson explained that “it was untenable to hear the chants, pleas, and cries of thousands of peaceful children outside our chambers and do nothing–say nothing.” The letter ended with, “We must never accept senseless deaths to continue on our watch and do nothing.”
Similarly, Jones and Johnson shared that they were frustrated with their colleagues' attempts to conduct business as usual and felt there needed to be a “serious response” to their inaction.
“There are those who are trying to say what we did was radical. What is radical are our colleagues who have made it easier to get a gun in this state than to get healthcare, our colleagues–who are so beholden to the NRA–won’t even listen to their own constituents,” Jones said in an interview with the Tennessee Holler. “What we did was not radical – inaction is radical.”
“We decided between bills, we are going to walk up, we're going to acknowledge the people outside surrounding this building, in the rotunda, and we're going to speak to their issue and tell them that we are with them," Johnson said.
All three of the lawmakers believe there should be more gun safety laws in Tennessee. Johnson, for example, plans to reintroduce this year a red-flag bill. This will be her third attempt after the bill failed in 2021 and, again, in 2022.
This week, Tennessee House Republicans filed resolutions to expel Representatives Johnson, Jones and Pearson as punishment for their actions in support of the gun control protesters. The move comes after Sexton stripped Johnson and Jones “of their committee assignments and restricted their access to legislative facilities.”
According to the resolution, the three lawmakers engaged in “disorderly behavior” and “did knowingly and intentionally bring disorder and dishonor to the House of Representatives.” On Monday, Republican members of the house voted to expedite the expulsion process, an ominous sign for the Democratic members. The final vote will be held Thursday, April 5.
The anticipated expulsions of Jones, Pearson and Johnson would be unprecedented. The Tennessee House has only rarely expelled members. In the past, when members were expelled, it was on a bipartisan basis:
In 2016, the Tennessee House expelled Jeremy Durham (R) over alleged sexual misconduct. Durham was "accused of inappropriate conduct with at least 22 women." The vote was 70-2.
In 1980, the Tennessee House expelled Robert Fischer (R) for soliciting a $1,000 bribe to kill a piece of legislation. The vote was 92-1.
In 1866, the Tennessee House voted to expel six lawmakers for trying "to prevent Tennessee from ratifying an amendment to the U.S. Constitution to provide citizenship to former slaves."
In recent years, the Tennessee legislature has declined to expel members engaged in serious misconduct. In 2019, former House Speaker Glen Casada (R) was accused of sending "sexist and racist text messages." Casada, who was later federally indicted on corruption charges, was forced out of his position as Speaker, but never expelled. He voluntarily resigned in August 2019.
In 2020, Tennessee Senator Joey Hensley (R) admitted he prescribed "opioids and other controlled substances to several family members and a second cousin who was both his employee and his romantic partner." Hensley had his medical license suspended but was not expelled from the legislature.