Tenn. House expels two Dems over gun protests

The vote came after the three Democrats led protests in favor of gun control legislation.
Former Rep. Justin Jones, D-Nashville, raises his fist on the floor of the House chamber as he walks to his desk to collect his belongings after being expelled from the legislature on Thursday, April 6, 2023. (AP Photo/George Walker IV)

The Tennessee House of Representatives voted Thursday to expel two Democrats who led boisterous protests against gun violence last week.

The House voted 72 to 25 to expel state Rep. Justin Jones (D) and 69 to 26 to expel state Rep. Justin Pearson (D). All votes came from members of the Republican supermajority that controls the chamber. 

Legislators fell one vote short of the two-thirds necessary to expel a second Democrat, Rep. Gloria Johnson (D).

Those watching in the gallery chanted “shame on you” to lawmakers as they adjourned early for the weekend.

The three Democrats were targeted for expulsion after they helped lead protestors who descended on the state Capitol in Nashville last week. During the protest to demand action on gun safety legislation in the wake of a mass shooting that claimed six lives at a Christian school in Nashville, the three led protest chants using a megaphone.

In the 20 minutes he had to mount his defense, Jones, who only began serving in the legislature after winning election in November, called the proceedings a “farce.” He pointed to comments from House Speaker Cameron Sexton (R), who said earlier this week the three would be expelled.

“It is in that spirit of speaking for my constituents, of being a representative of the people, that I approached this well last Thursday breaking a House rule, but exercising moral obedience to my constitutional responsibility to be a voice for my people, to be a voice for the Tennesseans who you choose not to listen to because of those [National Rifle Association] checks that are so hefty in your campaign funds,” Jones said.

Rep. Gino Bulso (R), who sponsored one of the expulsion resolutions, called Jones, a 27-year old Black man, “disrespectful.” Bulso said the protest amounted to a “mutiny.” 

The three Democrats said the punishment did not fit the crime.

“None of us believed that we were doing anything to deserve expulsion from this House,” Pearson said during his defense. Pearson has served in office only since January, when he was elected to replace his predecessor. 

Former state Rep. Mike Stewart (D), who spoke for Johnson, called the expulsion undemocratic.

“This is the ultimate dangerous precedent and it puts every member’s seat at risk,” Stewart said.

Johnson, 60, a retired teacher, also referred to her experience as a special education teacher in 2008 at Central High School in Knoxville when a student shot and killed a classmate.

The debate began on a contentious note that set the tone for the proceedings, after Republicans showed a seven-minute video of the protest. 

Rep. Joe Towns (D) called the unexpected video an “ambush” designed to incense the members that showed the three Democrats sharing a megaphone urging their colleagues to heed the call to pass gun violence legislation.

“Nobody likes a stacked deck,” Towns said. “Nobody likes to be treated unfairly. If you whip a man fair and square, he’ll shake your hand. But when you don’t do it fairly, you build resentment. You have the numbers. Treat them right.”

The state constitution permits the House to determine its rules and punish members for disorderly behavior, including expulsion. But lawmakers have used the power to expel a colleague just twice since the Civil War.

The resolutions alleged that the three “did knowingly and intentionally bring disorder and dishonor to the House of Representatives through their individual and collective actions.” 

The shooting at Covenant School, a parochial elementary school in the Green Hills neighborhood, shocked the community and sparked protests in and around the capitol building. During the ensuing protests, students carried signs and yelled at lawmakers in the hallway to “do your job,” chanting ‘gun control now.” 

According to the Gun Violence Archive, there have been 141 mass shootings so far this year. Gun violence is now the leading killer of American children, surpassing traffic accidents in 2020.