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The Tennessee Three

Southern lawmakers trigger national roll call for gun violence and reckon with race in America.

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Sunday Morning / April 19, 2023

The Tennessee House of Representatives reinstated two Black Democratic lawmakers on Monday and Wednesday. They were expelled last week for joining a gun control protest in the chamber’s public gallery on April 3, where Representatives Justin Jones and Justin Pearson added their voices to the melee using a bullhorn on the House floor chanting, “No Action, No Peace.”

By April 6, the Tennessee House of Representatives voted on resolutions to expel three of its Democratic members — Justin Jones, Justin J. Pearson and Gloria Johnson — who were each accused of breaking House ‘decorum rules’ by leading personal protests for gun reform on the House floor, and later joining demonstrators in the chamber's public gallery during a legislative session. Resolutions for the expulsions of Jones and Pearson passed with a two-thirds majority, and they were removed from office. The resolution against Johnson failed to pass by a single vote and she retained her seat. When asked why she thought she was not expelled Johnson replied, "It might have to do with the color of my skin."

The decision to expel the representatives has been called unprecedented in modern United States history, with the power to expel members typically being reserved to remove members accused of serious misconduct. The decision was condemned as undemocratic by U.S. president Joe Biden, former president Barack Obama, and former vice president Al Gore, who once served as a U.S. senator from Tennessee. He calls it “a tipping point for U.S. politicians to reckon with gun violence and racism in America.”

The protest was a reaction to last week’s Covenant School massacre, where the shooter legally obtained the guns used in the shootings, including a semi-automatic assault rifle. Tennessee's Republican governor on Tuesday signed an executive order to strengthen background checks for gun purchase, and has urged lawmakers to pass legislation tightening gun laws. “This is our moment to lead,” he said.

United We Stand

The Tennessee House of Representatives requires a two-thirds majority of the total membership to expel another representative, but in the state of Tennessee expulsions are rare. Since the Civil War, only eight representatives have been expelled including Robert Fisher in 1980 for bribery; Jeremy Durham in 2016 for sexual misconduct; and six representatives in 1866 for trying to obstruct passage of the 14th Amendment, granting citizenship and equal protection to former slaves. Then as now, the Tennessee legislature is conservative.

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Tennessee State House

While a handful of state legislatures are controlled by one party, that number has spiked in recent years. There are 37 states where one party controls the state legislature. Republicans control 23 states, Democrats control 14 states.

When the Tennessee House of Representatives voted to expel Jones by a vote of 72–25, split along party lines, it was sponsored by Bud Hulsey, a Bob Jones University graduate and former police officer who explains, "principles aren’t based on feelings" when cobbling together Tennessee’s Bathroom Bill. "When you’re born you got a birth certificate, and that shows what bathroom you use. It’s pretty simple."

The Tennessee House of Representatives also voted to expel Pearson, 69–26, split along party lines, and was sponsored by Andrew Farmer, who, apparently missing Marjorie Taylor Greene’s performance at the State of the Union on February 7 says, “had the expelled representatives done something similar at the White House or Governor's mansion, the US Secret Service would have arrested them and they would be in jail.”

The Tennessee House of Representatives voted not to expel Johnson, 65–30, split along party lines, which was sponsored by Gino Bulso. Representatives Bulso and Jones collided in an elevator shortly after the protests, and the exchange marks a quintessential moment in American history. Jones recalls their conversation.

How dare you point out the Speaker and call a lie a lie? How dare you act like he’s your equal? How dare you come before this body and not bow down? You’re a damn disgrace.

Jones replies. “Representative Bulso, hold on. Let me pull out my phone. Can you say that again? But he cowered and didn’t,” Jones explains, “because he didn’t want the world to see him calling me an uppity negro.”

The expulsions of Jones and Pearson left vacancies in House Districts 52 and 86, but the Tennessee State Constitution empowers their commissioners to appoint interim successors until a special election can be held. While Jones and Pearson both announced they’d run in the special elections, the commissioners overwhelmingly voted to reinstate Jones and Pearson, unanimously.

Divided We Fall

On Monday, another mass shooting occurred at the Old National Bank in Louisville, Kentucky. Five people were killed, eight others were injured, and the shooter, 25-year-old employee Connor James Sturgeon, livestreamed the shooting on Instagram.

Since gun violence has touched most Americans, it comes as no surprise that the governors of both states were acquainted with the victims. Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear described shooting victim Tommy Elliott as “one of my closest friends.” Tennessee’s First Lady Maria Lee was tight with two victims at the Covenant School massacre.

Yet both Tennessee and Kentucky are among states that allow most people to carry a concealed weapon without a permit, and Florida has became the 26th state to enact a version of permit-less carry when Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a new law last week.

There have been 145 mass shootings this year in the United States, and some may reach the U.S. Supreme Court for resolution. The conservative justices will refer to the U.S. Constitution’s Second Amendment’s in 1791 which states;

A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.

However, there’s a paradox between state militias and a federal standing army our Tennessee Three profoundly understand. While state militias were available to assist military operations against English incursions in 1791, their preeminent function in southern states was to police slaves. In fact, the Second Amendment was written to assure Southern states that Congress could not undermine the slave system. Patrick Henry argues for the ratification of the Second Amendment;

If the country were invaded, a state could be called to war, but couldn’t suppress an insurrection in their own states under this Constitution. If there were an insurrection of slaves, for example, the states could not suppress the rebellion without the interposition of Congress.

President Joe Biden called the expulsions "shocking, undemocratic, and without precedent.” Former President Barack Obama wrote, "This nation was built on peaceful protest. No elected official should lose their job simply for raising their voice.” But Former Vice President Al Gore — who served as a U.S. Representative from Tennessee from 1977-1985, and U.S. Senator from 1985-1993 — offered context. “It’s a historically sad day for democracy in Tennessee.”

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Was the expulsion and reinstatement of two Black democratic representatives in Tennessee an indictment or indicator of how democracy actually works? Patrick Henry admonished the states to hold Acts of Congress accountable to the U.S. Constitution when stumping for the Second Amendment, "united we stand, divided we fall." Jones, Pearson and Johnson invoke that same argument in reverse. On their feet and keeping it brief, "no action, no peace."

How we administer democracy now days is a rather fiery debate. Transgender discrimination reputedly triggered the Covenant School massacre, while a disgruntled employee in Kentucky had a squabble with his bank. However we choose to rebel or resist or rise up against an established authority, be advised that it’s the Second Amendment that enables us to pack heat. But as the Gentlemen from Tennessee most certainly prove, a bullhorn will work in a pinch.

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