On Monday, March 27, a 28-year-old individual shot and killed three children and three adults at the Covenant School in Nashville, TN. On Thursday, March 30, protestors lined the galleries of the Senate and House chambers of the state capitol. Legislation resumed that day after a brief break following the shooting; three representatives joined the protests during a recess on Thursday morning, causing a halt to the proceedings that lasted nearly an hour. The three representatives—Democrats Justin Jones, Justin Pearson, and Gloria Johnson—represent about 200,000 Tennesseans. Jones held a sign reading, “protect kids, not guns” and led chants with a megaphone.
Once proceedings resumed, Jones and Johnson were stripped from their appointed committees. Then, state Republicans motioned to expel the three from the legislature. After playing a video compilation of the three representatives during the protests (recording a video from within the chamber is against the rules in and of itself, Democrats argued), Republicans voted to expel representatives Jones and Pearson, sparing representative Johnson by a single vote.
House Republicans were infuriated by their actions, repeatedly comparing them to the January 6 insurrection in 2021. According to the state majority speaker, Cameron Sexton, “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.” For reference, four police officers committed suicide after defending the capitol, while another died from injuries sustained by the insurrectionist mob. The only deaths remotely related to the protest in the state legislature that day were the six shooting victims that catalyzed it in the first place. After his expungement, Jones said that it was “morally insane” to prioritize punishing lawmakers over a procedural interruption before a mass school shooting.
Representatives Pearson and Jones can still be reappointed through their local commissions, and this is exactly what happened in the weeks following their expulsions, unanimously. Justin Jones was reinstated on Monday, April 10 by the Nashville Metropolitan Council with a 36–0 vote. On Wednesday, April 12, Justin Pearson was reinstated by the Shelby County Commission with a 7–0 vote. Both lawmakers, and many other Democrats, have called this unprecedented vote a direct attack on democracy. In the Tennessee state legislature, past expulsions have been limited to those accused of bribery, fraud, and sexual abuse—three total instances. Jones commented on the use of expulsions historically, highlighting the severity of many cases relative to his own which did not merit any expulsion. Addressing the legislature, Jones said: “Let’s talk about expulsion. For years, one of your colleagues, an admitted child molester, sat in this chamber—no expulsion. One member who sits in this chamber was found guilty of domestic violence—no expulsion.…We have a member still under federal investigation—no expulsion. We had a member pee in another member’s chair in this chamber—no expulsion.”
50 percent of Republican voters support gun reform based on a recent poll, down from 58 percent in 2018. Ideally, representative democracy is about embodying the wills of the people, and many Democrats are arguing that our democracy is under attack when Republicans are retaining governmental control by suppressing the democracy upon which America was founded.