Tennessee statehouse expels Democrats for gun control protest

The Tennessee statehouse has expelled two Democratic politicians who led a gun control protest that halted legislative proceedings last week.

In a rare move, the Republican-controlled House of Representatives voted 72-25 to expel Justin Jones and 69-26 to remove Justin Pearson.

But an expulsion vote failed against a third Democratic lawmaker, Gloria Johnson, who joined the demonstration.

Hundreds of protesters have flooded the State Capitol since a school shooting.

The 27 March attack at Nashville’s Covenant School killed six, including three children.

The expulsion of Mr. Jones and Mr. Pearson marks the first such action that has been taken without the support of both parties in Tennessee’s modern history.

A resolution to expel Ms. Johnson fell one vote short of the required two-thirds majority. The margin was 65-30. Her supporters in the chamber cheered.

Lawmakers had argued for hours on Thursday over the moves. Audible within the chamber were the shouts of protesters who still crowd the statehouse.

Protesters gather in the Tennessee State Capitol in Nashville, Tennessee

Speaking on the House floor, former Representative Jones, who entered the chamber holding hands with Mr. Pearson and Ms. Johnson, called the expulsion vote a “farce of democracy”.

The measure was a “violation”, he said. “It is an attempt to silence and undo the will of over 200,000 Tennesseans whom the three of us represent.”

Mr. Jones and his two colleagues took to the House floor last Thursday, chanting “No action, no peace” and bringing the chamber’s proceedings to a standstill for nearly an hour.

The three lawmakers acknowledged they broke House rules by speaking without being formally recognized, but insisted their actions did not warrant expulsion.

But Republicans said the trio had brought “disorder and dishonor to the House”.

On Thursday, some Republican members said the Democrats’ actions amounted to an insurrection, with House Speaker Cameron Sexton, a Republican, comparing the incident to the Capitol Riots.

“What they did today was equivalent, at least equivalent, maybe worse depending on how you look at it, to doing an insurrection in the State Capitol,” he said.

Expulsion votes are exceptionally rare. In Tennessee, the House of Representatives has only twice voted to expel members. In 1980 it removed a sitting lawmaker convicted of soliciting a bribe and in 2016 a majority whip facing allegations of sexual misconduct was expelled.

But those expulsions had strong support from both parties.

Before Thursday’s votes began, House members debated more than 20 bills, some relating to school safety.

Throughout the discussion, Mr. Jones rose to speak several times, accusing his colleagues of passing “band-aid” legislation in response to mass shootings.

“It is not an action that will make our students safe,” Mr. Jones said. “I think we, as elected officials, have a moral responsibility to listen to these young people who are on the frontlines who are terrified, who are here, crying and pleading for their lives.”

In response, Republican Mark White – visibly aggravated – told Mr. Jones: “Look at me. Look at the other 97 [lawmakers]. This is exactly what we’re trying to do.”

Mr. White continued: “I have been up here for 14 years, you have been in this assembly for two months, three months.”

Tennessee has some of the most relaxed gun control laws in the country. In 2021, the state passed a measure allowing residents over 21 to carry handguns – concealed and unconcealed – without a permit.

Lawmakers and gun rights groups are working to lower that age to 18.

There is no system of universal background checks and no “red flag” laws, which are designed to allow authorities to temporarily seize legally owned guns from those found to be a danger to themselves or others.

Police said the Nashville shooter, who opened fire last week at the privately run Christian school, had legally purchased seven firearms on separate occasions.

Three of the weapons were used to kill three nine-year-old children and three members of the school staff. 

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