After days of loud protests by Tennesseans begging their legislature for tighter gun laws following a mass shooting at a Nashville school, state lawmakers acted decisively Thursday on a gun-related matter.
But their votes did not require universal background checks to buy a firearm, or ban so-called “bump stock” devices used for rapid-fire shooting, or reinstate a permit requirement for Tennesseans to carry an open or concealed handgun.
Rather, the Republican-controlled House expelled two members — both Democrats — for the way they protested the body’s failure to pursue significant gun reforms after the tragedy that left seven people at The Covenant School dead, including three children, three adult staff members, and the shooter.
With a required two-thirds vote, the House kicked out Rep. Justin Jones of Nashville and Rep. Justin Pearson of Memphis, the chamber’s two youngest Black members. An expulsion resolution against a third Democrat, Rep. Gloria Johnson of Knoxville, a retired teacher who is white, failed by a single vote.
Hailed by supporters as “The Tennessee Three,” the trio angered Republicans after they went to the front of the House floor and led chants with gun control supporters who had filled the chamber’s gallery on March 30, four days after the shooting.
Jones and Pearson alternately used a bullhorn to shout “Gun control now!” and “Power to the people!” All three legislators later acknowledged that, in violation of House rules, they were not formally recognized by House Speaker Cameron Sexton to speak at the podium and occupy the area for nearly an hour.
“What they did was try to hold up the people’s business on the House floor,” said Sexton, who led the charge to expel the trio for “disorderly behavior” and “knowingly and intentionally bringing disorder and dishonor to the House of Representatives.”
The three Democrats, in making their case to fellow legislators during nearly six hours of expulsion proceedings, said their goal that day was to advocate for thousands of protesters, many of them students, who had come to the State Capitol that week to demand stricter gun laws.
“I was fighting for your children and your grandchildren,” said Jones, 27, in closing remarks to his colleagues in the House.
Expulsions strengthen GOP supermajority
The votes stripped Jones and Pearson of their status as lawmakers during the most important month of a pivotal legislative session, temporarily robbing some 140,000 Tennesseans in the state’s two largest cities of representation.
Their expulsion further diminishes the minority party’s ability to provide any kind of check-and-balance on the House’s Republican supermajority, which in recent years has helped pass laws allowing the state to ban certain library books, restrict what teachers can say in their classrooms about race and gender, and mandate anti-LGBTQ policies.
Even before the ouster of Jones and Pearson, Republicans outnumbered Democrats 75 to 23 in the House.
But perhaps more urgently, the chaotic sideshow has diverted lawmakers’ attention from the work that — based on large protests day after day at the state Capitol and student walkouts Wednesday in cities like Memphis — a growing chorus of Tennesseans are demanding to make their schools and state safer.
Lax gun laws, especially those allowing easy access to military-style semiautomatic weapons, have been the top concern of students, parents, educators, and gun control advocates calling for change since the shooting at The Covenant School.
The 28-year-old intruder, a former Covenant student, used two assault-style rifles and a pistol, all purchased legally, to carry out the attack. Police investigating the shooting have not determined a motive.
“This is the time for action,” said Rep. Bob Freeman, a Nashville Democrat who represents the district that is home to The Covenant School.
The big question, he said, is whether Republicans and Democrats can break through their partisan conflicts to find a sensible way forward to address gun violence.
“People are begging for us to do something across this state,” Freeman said earlier this week. “And instead of us having meaningful conversations, we’ve been distracted with an expulsion of some of our members who were speaking out for exactly what the people across the state are begging us to do.”
Democrats roll out bills to restrict gun access
Gov. Bill Lee is sticking with a school safety approach aimed at fortifying campuses instead of restricting gun access. The Republican governor wants to pump more than $200 million more into hardening K-12 public schools by hiring additional armed security guards, upgrading school buildings, and placing a homeland security agent in every Tennessee county, among other things.
“Fortifying our schools right now in this state is absolutely what we need to do,” House Majority Leader William Lamberth said Thursday before representatives voted 95-4 to approve the governor’s package.
On Wednesday, Democrats laid out their own action plan. Instead of current GOP-backed legislative proposals that suggest the answer to gun violence is more guns, they announced five pieces of new legislation that they believe would begin to reel in gun access in one of the most gun-friendly states in America.
Among them: passing a so-called red flag law, also known as an extreme risk protection order, that allows law enforcement to intervene and remove weapons if a judge deems the owner is at risk of hurting himself or others.
Parents of the Nashville shooter had expressed concern that their adult child, who had been under a doctor’s care for an undisclosed “emotional disorder,” had purchased guns.
Democrats also want to require universal background checks to buy a firearm; ban bump stock conversion kits and high-capacity magazines that make gun violence more lethal; and re-establish gun permits, training requirements, and mandatory background checks for individuals who want to carry firearms in public.
Meanwhile, the last of the funerals for the school’s six victims was held Tuesday for Mike Hill, Covenant’s 61-year-old custodian. The other five victims were Evelyn Dieckhaus, William Kinney, and Hallie Scruggs, all age 9; Katherine Koonce, 60, the head of school; and Cynthia Peak, 61, a substitute teacher that day.
This story has been updated with the outcomes of Thursday’s expulsion votes.
Marta W. Aldrich is a senior correspondent who covers the statehouse for Chalkbeat Tennessee. Contact her at email@example.com.