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Tennessee Republicans tried to silence three Democrats over guns. They turned them into national figures

A Republican attempt to cut off debate inside the Tennessee House has turned into a nationwide conversation, Josh Marcus reports

Friday 07 April 2023 22:41 BST
Former Rep Justin Jones, Rep Gloria Johnson and former Rep Justin Pearson raise their hands outside the House chamber after Jones and Pearson were expelled from the legislature
Former Rep Justin Jones, Rep Gloria Johnson and former Rep Justin Pearson raise their hands outside the House chamber after Jones and Pearson were expelled from the legislature (Copyright 2023 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

In America, even the most stirring calls to action to prevent mass shootings have a way of quickly being forgotten or neutralised.

No matter how many victims speak out, no matter how many legislators call for a new approach, no matter how awful the details of each new massacre at hand – little has been done in decades to change the way guns are accessed in the US, aside from Republican-led states making it easier to carry pistols without a permit.

Even last year’s landmark Bipartisan Safer Communities Act, hailed as the most important federal gun law in three decades, doesn’t go as far as an assault weapons ban that expired in 2004, despite mass killings with assault rifles like the AR-15 continuing unabated.

Within a few days or weeks, the national media packs up, conservative legislators stonewall new provisions, and the conversation moves to the next violent incident in the US, where more than one mass shooting occurs per day, according to the Gun Violence Archive.

But things may be different after the Nashville shooting. In Tennessee, a group of Democratic lawmakers was expelled from their seats by Republicans for joining in with anti-gun violence protests taking place at the capitol, setting off a national scandal.

The decision to remove Representatives Justin Jones and Justin Pearson from their seats was widely condemned as an “unprecedented” abuse of power, with the state GOP wielding a punishment that’s been reserved for legislators guilty of criminal offences like taking bribes and serially sexually harassing people.

White House officials past and present weighed in.

Joe Biden called the expulsions “shocking, undemocratic, and without precedent.”

“What happened in Tennessee is the latest example of a broader erosion of civility and democratic norms,” Barack Obama added on Twitter. “Silencing those who disagree with us is a sign of weakness, not strength, and it won’t lead to progress.”

Al Gore, who served as a US representative and senator for Tennessee before becoming vice-president, meanwhile, said the expulsions marked a “a historically sad day for democracy in Tennessee,” with a move that “disenfranchised nearly 150,000 voters whose representatives rightfully pushed to reform TN’s insanely dangerous gun laws.”

Notable activists also chimed in to support the so-called “Tennessee Three.”

“Justin Pearson and his colleagues are standing up on behalf of all Tennesseans pleading for their elected officials to confront gun violence,” activist Rev Dr William J Barber II wrote on Twitter on Thursday. “By expelling these legislators, Republican extremists are turning a deaf ear to the murdered children crying out for justice.”

David Hogg, a survivor of the Parkland shooting and a prominent anti-gun violence campaigner, wrote on Twitter on Friday that, “You can’t expel a movement,” and the decision to eject the representatives was “a great way to grow a movement.”

Prior to the decision to expel the representatives, Republicans grilled Rep Jones about how he came to be holding a megaphone during the protest last week on the floor, which he admitted he brought into the statehouse in a jacket pocket.

Ironically, the decision to expel the Nashville Democrat and his colleague may have ended up handing them an even bigger megaphone to reach a national audience usually ignorant of the deeply important but lesser-covered battles that often occur in state legislatures.

Soon, the energetic young representatives were all over cable news and the nation’s editorial pages, with clips of their passionate floor speeches going viral on social media. On Friday afternoon, vice-president Kamala Harris will travel to Nashville to meet with the exiled lawmakers, whose local governments have already signaled they’ll likely send the men back to office in special appointments ahead of a new election.

According to US Senator Chris Murphy, the two expelled legislators have raised over $400,000 in less than a day for their eventual re-election campaign.

The protest also seemed to make a local impact for a community still devastated by the Nashville shooting, in which three nine-year-olds and three staff were killed by an individual with multiple assault weapons at a private Christian elementary school.

The three Democratic representatives up for expulsion were greeted with rapturous applause as they entered the House chamber, and cheers rang out from the gallery when Gloria Johnson narrowly avoided being booted from her seat.

Sarah Neumann, the mother of a five-year-old who attends the Covenant school, was seen hugging Rep Pearson and crying tears of appreciation.

The vote was even reaching people across the world.

Readers of the Nashville Tennessean wrote in letters to the editor from locales as far-flung as New Zealand and Italy.

“What the Republicans did accomplish was make a mockery of democracy, humiliated Tennessee on the world stage and disgraced the Tennessee General Assembly,” Rebecca Rochat, one reader, wrote in. “This is a moment of reckoning for Tennessee. Cutting off microphones to prevent duly elected representatives from engaging in legitimate political discourse will not silence them as we have heard.”

What remains to be seen is whether this outpouring of support will translate into impactful change that will prevent future tragedies like the Nashville shooting.

State Republicans in Tennessee have proposed massively increasing funding for school police officers at public schools, though the Covenant school was private and some of its teachers were already armed. Additionally, as The Independent has reported, school police officers typically do not tend to make school shootings less likely or less deadly, according to research, despite their popularity politically. Tennessee GOP-ers have also pursued regulations that would make concealed carry even easier in the state.

Leaders in the state Senate have unequivocally stated they won’t take up any new bills about firearms access.

“We will not hear any gun bills, anything related to gun bills this year. If they want to take them up next year, that’ll be fine,” Senate Judiciary Chairman Todd Gardenire told Tennessee Lookout last week. “This committee is not gonna be turned into a circus by people with other agendas. The agenda on the table now is respecting the privacy of the victims’ families that were gunned down and let that healing process start.”

However, it seems that with the high-profile expulsion vote, the Tennessee legislature has unwittingly become the centre of the political circus nonetheless, and for once, it doesn’t seem like the nation’s attention is moving on any time soon.

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