When Tennessee state Rep. Gloria Johnson joined two colleagues in boisterous chants for gun reform on the state Capitol’s House floor last Thursday during a recess between bills, it was largely because she knows firsthand about the lasting trauma of those who have experienced a school shooting.
After the school shooting in Nashville last week that claimed the lives of six people, including three children, Johnson recalled her own experience 15 years ago.
She was a teacher at Central High School in Knoxville in 2008 when a student fatally shot a 15-year-old classmate during a dispute. As her memories flooded back, Johnson said she felt silenced by the majority Republican-led House for not formally bringing a gun control discussion to the floor — so she and two other representatives took on the responsibility themselves.
“As an educator who’s been in a school when there was a school shooting, we have to [make] this issue paramount,” Johnson, who represents Knoxville, told Yahoo News, recalling the psychological damage of the 2008 shooting on the community. “It was a trauma-filled day and a sad day — and we lost a life. It had a serious effect on students.”
Johnson and two fellow Democrats, Reps. Justin Jones of Nashville and Justin Pearson of Memphis — who have since gained notoriety as the “Tennessee Three” — said they understood they were violating decorum when they approached the podium last week with a bullhorn chanting, “No action, no peace!” They were echoing the sentiments of thousands of students, parents and community members they had met earlier that day, many of whom were shouting from the gallery above the chamber, growing impatient as the House worked through various pieces of legislation, none of which addressed guns.
The trio had expected consequences for their action, but they had not expected it would cost them their seats.
Republicans on Monday introduced legislation to expel the three Democrats for “disorderly behavior,” with GOP House Speaker Cameron Sexton likening the public display to an “insurrection.”
“What they did was try to hold up the people’s business on the House floor, instead of doing it the way that they should have done it, which they have the means to do,” he said on “The Hal Show Podcast” that evening. “They actually thought that they would be arrested. And so they decided that them being a victim was more important than focusing on the six victims from Monday. And that’s appalling.”
Sexton did not return Yahoo News’ request for comment.
Republicans also stripped the lawmakers — who represent the state’s three largest cities, with about 80,000 constituents each — of their committee assignments and revoked their building access. Final votes for the expulsion were set to take place Thursday.
‘Chilling effect across the country’
Johnson said that if she and her fellow legislators were expelled, “this is going to have a chilling effect across the country, especially in red states.” She added, “It’s going to scare people from talking about real issues. … [Republicans] thought they would take this opportunity to take these respected voices in the state away and didn’t take a second to think about what they were doing.”
Pearson, who was elected to his seat in January, accuses Republicans in the state House of being “silently complicit” with gun companies, resulting in an “erosion of democracy.”
“There were thousands outside wanting us to stand up,” Pearson told Yahoo News, noting that he comes from a community that too often suffers from gun violence. “We want action so we don’t have this issue. This is indicative of the silencing.”
Leaders across the country have echoed his sentiment.
White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre slammed Tennessee Republicans for taking swift action on the Democrats’ protest while failing to consider measures that could prevent another school shooting.
“What did the Republican legislators do? They’re trying to expel these three Democratic legislators who joined in the protest,” Jean-Pierre said Tuesday, adding that Republicans “are shrugging in the face of yet another tragic school shooting, while our kids continue to pay the price.”
Guns are the leading cause of death for children and adolescents under the age of 19, after taking the lead over car accidents in 2020, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In 2021 alone, firearms accounted for almost 1 in 5 deaths of children.
Sen. Chris Murphy, a Democrat from Connecticut, where the deadliest elementary school shooting in U.S. history took place in 2012 at Sandy Hook Elementary, called the move to expel the legislators “bone-chilling.”
“I’m not excusing yelling out of turn on the House floor,” Murphy tweeted Tuesday. “Civility still matters in politics. But expulsion is an extreme measure of last resort, not the first step when someone breaks the House floor rules. And the double standard tells you everything you need to know.”
Former Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts called the possible expulsion “infuriating and antidemocratic.”
Jones, who at 27 is one of the youngest members of the Tennessee House, told CNN Wednesday that the move to expel him and his colleagues is “morally insane.”
“It’s very concerning, and it represents a clear and present danger to democracy all across this nation that should trouble us all,” he said.
Some critics, including Thomas Goodman, an assistant professor in the Department of Politics and Law at Rhodes College in Memphis, say there are other ways to be disruptive while respecting procedure.
“I fear this could lead to a chilling effect on other Republican-led states, possibly deterring the voicing of dissident opinions in states where abortion laws and gun control policy do not neatly align with the majority’s views,” Goodman said in an email to Yahoo News. “But why limit it to Republican-led states? What about the potential for Democratic-majority states to act in similarly abusive ways?
“Democrats in other states could continue expressing their opinions and offering dissent, but through mechanisms that do not disrupt parliamentary procedures, within acceptable parliamentary channels,” he wrote.
Concerns of a double standard
The move to expel the three Democrats has also raised criticism of a double standard in the Republican-controlled state House, which in recent years has declined to take action against a member accused of sexual misconduct and against another facing an indictment for violating federal campaign finance laws.
“Evidently these are not expulsion-worthy displays of unethical behavior or lack of decorum,” Carrie Russell, a political science professor at Vanderbilt University, told Yahoo News in an email, while acknowledging that such a move “signals that dissent and protesting against the stated agenda, regardless of the context, will procedurally engender the most extreme measures — rendering their seats vacant and removing the ability of the voters in the states’ most diverse districts to receive representation in the halls of government.”
Since the Civil War, just two other members of the Tennessee House have been expelled, for much more egregious reasons. Most recently, in 2016, Rep. Jeremy Durham, a Republican, was removed over allegations of sexual misconduct involving at least 22 women. In 1980, Rep. Robert Fisher, a Republican, was expelled after being convicted of soliciting a bribe in exchange for attempting to prevent pending legislation from going through.
Political experts say a move to remove legislators for protesting out of turn would set a troubling precedent.
“Expulsion directly removes a duly elected official. It takes the decision out of the hands of the electorate,” Susan Haynes, an associate professor of political science at Lipscomb University in Nashville, told Yahoo News, adding that expulsion in this circumstance “lessens the threshold for what qualifies as an expellable offense.”
She added, “Neither the Tennessee Constitution nor the U.S. Constitution specifies what constitutes an expellable offense, so there is significant ambiguity there. But if we make this a political decision and weaponize the process, it sets a dangerous precedent.”
Jana Morgan, a professor of political science at the University of Tennessee and co-author of the book “Hijacking the Agenda: Economic Power and Political Influence,” told Yahoo News she sees two possible outcomes of an expulsion.
“Expelling these legislators would immediately strip thousands of Tennesseans of elected representation in the state Legislature, and the expulsion proceedings could work to silence the voices that these members aimed to amplify,” she said. “At the same time, the ripple effects from this expulsion effort could actually galvanize the supporters of the Tennessee Three, as well as gun control advocates across the state and country.”
In an atmosphere of rising tensions, Republican Rep. Justin Lafferty, who had been taking video of the gallery with his cellphone, allegedly assaulted Jones on Monday and grabbed his phone as he tried to capture the scene on the House floor, while protesters in the gallery above chanted, “Fascists!”
“This is a sad day for Tennessee,” Jones said in a tweet capturing the moment.
Johnson called the incident an example of “privilege” at work. But beyond the infighting and tense exchanges in the past week, she says, lives are at stake. Having been in elected office off and on for a decade, Johnson said she has seen a reduction in bipartisan work for the greater good.
She recalls that when she was first elected in 2013, it was a time when “we were on both sides of the aisle, but we would get along. Now there’s a meanness with this new class even more. It’s concerning, and we are moving further and further away from democracy.”
Republicans push back
Still, Republicans appear to be holding their ground.
Republican Rep. Gino Bulso, who sponsored Johnson’s expulsion, said on an appearance on the conservative “Daily Wire” podcast on Wednesday that the three lawmakers must be disciplined.
“They voluntarily disqualified themselves from further service,” he said. “Rather than comply with their oath to the Constitution and comply with the rules, they decided to go outside of the House and effectively shut it down. And so what we’re simply doing is recognizing that they’ve voluntarily chosen to put themselves outside the House and formally expel them.”
It will take two-thirds of the House to officially expel a member, and the Tennessee House GOP has the votes to do that, with 75 Republicans, 23 Democrats and one vacancy.
“It is my sincere hope that cooler heads will prevail, and that the members will be dealt with in a way that fits robust dissent, not insurrection,” Russell of Vanderbilt said.
Ken Paulson, director of the Free Speech Center at Middle Tennessee State University, has some questions for the state House. “The key question is whether the lawmakers are being punished for their actions or their speech,” he said. “If no one has ever been expelled for comparably disruptive behavior in the chamber, there’s a strong argument that they’re being punished for their speech, which would violate the First Amendment. … This has the feel of retaliation for criticism directed at House members.”
Pearson said Thursday he believes this is likely to be his last week as an elected official. But the work, he says, never stops.
“I expect the majority of those people to expel us in an attempt to expel us [as people], but you can’t silence us,” he said. “We are going to continue to do the work to not be silenced.”
Cover thumbnail: Seth Herald/Getty Images