Tennessee’s House expels 2 of 3 Democrats over guns protest

The vote to oust Rep. Justin Pearson on Thursday came after fellow Democratic Rep. Justin Jones was expelled but a vote to oust Rep. Gloria Johnson failed.

Gun reform and ''Tennessee Three'' supporters raise signs in the gallery of the House chamber Thursday, April 6, 2023, in Nashville

Gun reform and ''Tennessee Three'' supporters raise signs in the gallery of the House chamber Thursday, April 6, 2023, in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/George Walker IV)

In an extraordinary act of political retaliation, Tennessee Republicans on Thursday expelled two Democratic lawmakers from the state Legislature for their role in a protest that called for more gun control in the aftermath of a deadly school shooting in Nashville.

The banishment of Reps. Justin Jones and Justin Pearson was a move the chamber has used only a handful times since the Civil War. Most state legislatures possess the power to expel members, but it is generally reserved as a punishment for lawmakers accused of serious misconduct, not used as a weapon against political opponents.

The GOP supermajority in the House declined by a single vote to expel a third Democrat, Rep. Gloria Johnson.

Johnson joined with Jones and Pearson last week as hundreds of protesters packed the Capitol to call for passage of gun-control measures. While demonstrators filled galleries, the three Democrats approached the front of the House chamber with a bullhorn and participated in a chant.

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

The protest unfolded days after the shooting at the Covenant School, a private Christian school where six people were killed, including three children.

“We are losing our democracy. This is not normal. This is not OK,” Pearson told reporters as he waited to learn whether he would be banished too. The three “broke a House rule because we’re fighting for kids who are dying from gun violence and people in our communities who want to see an end to the proliferation of weaponry in our communities.”

Johnson, a retired teacher, said her concern about school shootings was personal, recalling a day in 2008 when students came running toward her out of a cafeteria because a student had just been shot and killed there.

“The trauma on those faces, you will never, ever forget. I don’t want to forget it,” she said.

Thousands of people flocked to the Capitol on Thursday to support the Democrats, cheering and chanting outside the House chamber so loudly that the noise drowned out the proceedings.

The trio held hands as they walked onto the House floor, and Pearson raised his fist to the crowd during the Pledge of Allegiance.

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

Offered a chance to defend himself before the vote, Jones said the GOP responded to the shooting with a different kind of attack.

“We called for you all to ban assault weapons, and you respond with an assault on democracy,” he said.

If expelled, Jones vowed that he would continue pressing for action on guns.

“I’ll be out there with the people every week, demanding that you act,” he said.

Republican Rep. Gino Bulso said the three Democratic representatives “effectively conducted a mutiny.”

“The gentleman shows no remorse,” Bulso said, referring to Jones. “He does not even recognize that what he did was wrong. So not to expel him would simply invite him and his colleagues to engage in mutiny on the House floor.”

Even if they are expelled, the three lawmakers may not be gone for long. County commissions in their districts get to pick replacements to serve until a special election can be scheduled.

Any expelled lawmakers would be eligible for appointment back to their seats. They would also be eligible to run in the special election. And under the Tennessee Constitution, lawmakers cannot be expelled for the same offense twice.

Republican Rep. Sabi Kumar advised Jones, who is Black, to be more collegial and less focused on race.

“You have a lot to offer, but offer it in a vein where people are accepting of your ideas,” Kumar said.

Jones said he did not intend to assimilate in order to be accepted. “I’m not here to make friends. I’m here to make a change for my community,” he replied.

Outrage over the possible expulsion underscored not only the ability of the Republican supermajority to silence opponents, but its increasing willingness to do so.

In Washington, President Joe Biden blasted the GOP’s priorities.

“Three kids and three officials gunned down in yet another mass shooting. And what are GOP officials focused on? Punishing lawmakers who joined thousands of peaceful protesters calling for action. It’s shocking, undemocratic, and without precedent,” Biden tweeted.

Many of the protesters traveled from Memphis and Knoxville, areas that Pearson and Johnson represent, and stood in a line that wrapped around the Capitol to get inside.

Protesters outside the chamber held up signs that said, “School zones shouldn’t be war zones,” “Muskets didn’t fire 950 rounds per minute” with a photo of George Washington, and “You can silence a gun … but not the voice of the people.“

Before the expulsion vote, House members debated more than 20 bills, including a school safety proposal requiring public and private schools to submit their building safety plans to the state. The bill did not address gun control, sparking criticism from some Democratic members that lawmakers were only addressing a symptom and not the cause of school shootings.

Past expulsion votes have taken place under distinctly different circumstances.

In 2019, lawmakers faced pressure to expel former Republican Rep. David Byrd after he faced accusations of sexual misconduct dating to when he was a high school basketball coach three decades earlier. Republicans declined to take any action, pointing out that he was reelected as the allegations surfaced. Byrd retired last year.

Last year, the state Senate expelled Democrat Katrina Robinson after she was convicted of using about $3,400 in federal grant money on wedding expenses instead of her nursing school.

Before that case, state lawmakers last ousted a House member in 2016 when the chamber voted 70-2 to remove Republican Rep. Jeremy Durham after an attorney general’s investigation detailed allegations of improper sexual contact with at least 22 women during his four years in office.

Get the WHYY app!

WHYY is your source for fact-based, in-depth journalism and information. As a nonprofit organization, we rely on financial support from readers like you. Please give today.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal