The Tennessee GOP’s chilling effort to expel Democrats over a gun control protest, explained

Six Killed In Mass Shooting At A Prive School In Nashville
Protesters gather inside the Tennessee State Capitol to call for an end to gun violence and support stronger gun laws on March 30, 2023 in Nashville, Tennessee.  | Seth Herald/Getty Images

Republicans are using gun control protests to justify removing Democrats from office.

In a sign of how vigorously Republicans in the state continue to oppose gun control, even in the face of a mass school shooting, members of the Tennessee state legislature are trying to expel three Democratic lawmakers who joined a protest in favor of gun reforms last week.

On Monday, Republican state Reps. Bud Hulsey, Gino Bulso, and Andrew Farmer filed resolutions aimed at booting Democratic state Reps. Gloria Johnson, Justin Jones, and Justin Pearson for leading statehouse protesters in gun control chants from the House floor last Thursday. The lawmakers joined thousands of people including college students, high school students, and parents, who demonstrated at the Nashville Capitol to call for more action on gun control after three children and three adults were killed in the Covenant School shooting.

A vote will be held Thursday on the expulsion resolutions — which could pass if two-thirds of the state’s House votes in favor. Currently, Republicans have a supermajority in the House, holding 75 of the 99 seats, meaning they have the numbers to move forward if GOP lawmakers all supported these measures.

The resolutions attempt to remove Johnson, Jones, and Pearson from office on the grounds that they’ve “knowingly and intentionally [brought] disorder and dishonor to the House of Representatives.” The three lawmakers have acknowledged that they broke House rules by talking without being recognized, but noted that they did so to speak on behalf of their constituents who are demanding change.

Republicans’ push for expulsion is a rare and undemocratic maneuver that would remove three prominent gun control advocates from their elected positions — including two Black members. It speaks to how aggressively Republicans are pushing back on calls for gun control, in the wake of a horrific school shooting last week, and is part of an ongoing effort to limit Democrats’ power in the state.

Previously, Republicans have proposed bills that would dilute local lawmakers’ power in Democrat-led cities like Nashville and Memphis, with the goal of gutting policies on policing and slashing resources for regional leaders. Given the demographics of the cities — Memphis is majority Black, while about a quarter of Nashville’s residents are Black — many of these efforts are seen as explicitly targeting Black political power in these areas as well.

Only two lawmakers have been expelled from the Tennessee legislature since the Civil War, according to the Associated Press. The most recent expulsion was that of Rep. Jeremy Durham in 2016, for sexual misconduct. Prior to that, Rep. Robert Fisher was expelled in 1980 for accepting a bribe to kill legislation.

Democrats and activists have denounced the expulsion resolutions, which would go into effect shortly if passed. Were they expelled, the three Democrats’ home county commissions would likely have to appoint interim representatives and then hold special elections for their seats. There’s nothing to prevent them from running for those same seats again, though it’s unclear if Republican leadership could try to bar them from getting sworn in.

“The House speaker should be leading a real, bipartisan discussion to generate reforms that could stop the next school shooting,” the Tennessee Black Caucus said in a statement supporting the Democratic lawmakers. “Instead, he’s using his power to silence people who are calling for solutions that he opposes.”

The resolutions to remove the lawmakers, briefly explained

The expulsion resolutions were filed following a gun control protest last Thursday when thousands of activists came to the Capitol in Nashville to call for reforms.

Currently, Tennessee has expansive gun rights and limited gun control, with the legislature and governor pushing laws in 2021 that enable more people to carry handguns without a permit. The Republican-led legislature has also signaled it’s unlikely to do more on the issue in the near term.

“They came out this week and said they aren’t going to hear any more bills this year to address gun violence.” says Brynn Jones, a Vanderbilt student and organizer with March For Our Lives.

During the protest, Johnson, Jones, and Pearson — who represent Knoxville, Nashville, and Memphis, respectively — went onto the House floor amid a legislative session and led protesters in the upper gallery in chants like “Gun control now,” using a bullhorn. Republicans have said that this behavior was disruptive and warrants expulsion. The Tennessee Constitution gives both chambers leeway in determining how they punish their members, though expulsion has only typically been used for unique and serious violations, like bribery and sexual misconduct.

In this case, Republicans argue that Democrats have broken multiple House rules including speaking without being recognized and crowding the House clerk’s desk. Speaker Cameron Sexton noted that Democrats violated principles of “decorum and procedure on the House floor,” and has gone so far as to compare the gun control protest misleadingly with an “insurrection,” rhetorically linking lawmakers’ peaceful protest at their workplace with rioters’ deadly break-in at the US Capitol on January 6, 2021. The three Democrats have already been stripped of their committees following their participation in the protests.

The three Democrats have said they protested to give attention to people’s concerns about gun control and the lack of action on it in the legislature. “My walk to the House floor in a peaceful and civil manner was not an insurrection. I wanted to listen and respond to the voices of Tennesseans who were not given the opportunity to speak in meaningful dialogue with us,” Pearson wrote in a letter to House members, which he posted on Instagram. Both Pearson and Jones are freshman members, while Johnson was elected in 2018.

Although the Democrats have said they broke rules about decorum, they’ve argued doing so was necessary to attempt to avoid future child gun deaths, with Jones using the term #GoodTrouble to reference the late Georgia Rep. John Lewis’s calls for civil rights activism. Their party has also pointed out that the consequences the lawmakers have already faced are very different from how Tennessee Republicans have treated issues within their own party. In the past, Republican leaders declined to expel members like state Rep. David Byrd, who was accused of child sexual abuse, and former House Speaker Glen Casada who has since been indicted on charges of fraud and bribery.

“There should be a fair proportionate response regardless of party affiliation,” says Vanderbilt political science professor Samar Ali.

Republicans’ actions could send a chilling message

If successful, these resolutions would expel the three members from the House legislature, sending a chilling message about free speech, democratic representation, and the role of an opposition party. It would also mean that their districts, which include more diverse constituencies, would be stripped of the members they had democratically elected this past fall.

“These representatives are coming from some of the most diverse counties,” says Ezri Tyler, a Vanderbilt student and March For Our Lives organizer. “Even just looking at the state legislature, they are trying to remove one of the women representatives and two young Black representatives in a majority white old male body.”

That expulsion would disenfranchise Tennesseans has specifically been cited by Republicans in the past as to why they’ve refrained from expelling their members. And one of the lawmakers believes if the Tennessee GOP is successful, it will create a model for the party to follow in other states.

“It will echo across the country. I think it will have a chilling effect on all states where there’s supermajorities or very red states,” Rep. Gloria Johnson told Politico.

Beyond any potential effects outside the state, the debacle also sends a disturbing signal about lawmakers’ openness to even discussing gun control since it shuts down dissenting voices. “What’s clear is that this is an effort to undermine a conversation that has taken a long time to be had in Tennessee,” says Christian Heyne, vice president of policy at the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence.

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