Tennessee Republicans vote on expelling Democrats for gun protest

Vote takes place days after deadly Nashville school shooting, with advocates calling possible ousting ‘undemocratic’.

The Republican-controlled Tennessee state legislature has voted to expel Justin Jones and Justin Pearson, two Democratic lawmakers who took part in a gun control protest at the state house in the wake of last week’s deadly school shooting in Nashville.

Jones’s expulsion passed with 72 votes, well beyond the two-thirds majority, or 66 votes, required for passage in the 100-seat chamber. Pearson was expelled in a vote of 69 to 26.

A vote to expel a third state representative, fellow Democrat Gloria Johnson, failed by one vote. She had not led any chanting during the protest.

Jones and Pearson had used a bullhorn on Friday to lead protesters in chanting demands for stricter gun laws in the state, days after an assailant welding two “assault-style weapons” and a pistol fatally shot three 9-year-old students and three adults at the Covenant School, a private Christian primary school in the city. The protest briefly halted legislative proceedings.

The resolutions for expulsion accused the three state representatives of engaging in “disorderly behavior” by taking part in the protest.

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

Protesters began to gather early Thursday at the state capitol before the expulsion votes were set to begin. With Republicans controlling 75 seats to the Democrats’ 25, the expulsions were expected to pass with ease.

More than 200 state legislators from across the country called the proposed removals “anti-democratic” in letter to Tennessee House Speaker Cameron Sexton.

“From Tennessee, to Oklahoma, to Florida, we are witnessing courageous state lawmakers across the country standing with the people and defending our freedoms,” the legislators wrote. “Actions to strip lawmakers away from their duly-elected positions undermine the people’s will and represent a direct threat to our democracy everywhere”.

Thursday’s vote marks the first time a legislator has been removed from the chamber without facing investigation or accusations of serious misconduct since the Civil War era. It also represents the first partisan removal of legislators.

Together, the three lawmakers represent nearly 200,000 people. The trio entered the state House holding hands on Thursday to cheers from the gathered crowd. They were set to get 20 minutes each to speak before the vote.

Past expulsions included a legislator who was ousted in 1980 for soliciting a bribe in exchange for blocking legislation. Another was expelled in 2016 after being accused of sexual misconduct by numerous women. Both those expulsions were made with overwhelming, bipartisan votes.

In a tweet, Jones said, “It’s morally insane that a week after a mass shooting took six lives in our community, House Republicans only response is to expel us for standing with our constituents to call for gun control.”

On Wednesday, he wrote, “We’ll not be intimidated. THE PEOPLE are demanding we act to stop kids from being murdered in school.”

Speaking on MSNBC Thursday morning, Representative Johnson, a former high school teacher, said the shooting showed the priorities of Republicans in the chamber.

“After this shooting in Nashville, where we lost Evelyn, Hallie, William, Cynthia, Katherine and Mike,” she said, referring to the Covenant school victims by their first names, “the first action this body took was not to do something about gun violence, but to expel three members who spoke up against gun violence.”

Johnson has said she plans to re-introduce a so-called “Red Flag” gun bill this year that would allow authorities to take guns away from people experiencing mental crises.

Nashville’s shooting has again prompted national calls for increased gun control. US President Joe Biden has pushed for measures including a federal ban on assault-style weapons, though his administration has admitted that any legislation would rely on Congress breaking its deadlock over the entrenched issue.

Republican leaders in Congress have said in the wake of the latest attack that it was premature to act on gun reforms, instead stressing a need for increased mental health support and school safety.

On Thursday, White House spokesperson Karine Jean-Pierre called the planned Tennessee vote “shocking, undemocratic and without precedent”.

“Across Tennessee and across America, our kids are paying the price for the actions of Republican lawmakers who continue to refuse to take action on stronger gun laws,” she said.

“The president will continue to call on Congress to take action to ban assault weapons and high capacity magazines, require safe storage of firearms, eliminate gun manufacturers’ immunity from liability and require background checks for all gun sales. And state officials must do the same.”

On Wednesday, thousands of students walked out of classrooms across the country to call for actions. The gun control advocacy group Everytown for Gun Safety said about 300 demonstrations across 41 states were planned throughout the week.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies