NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Tennessee’s GOP-dominated House is preparing to vote Thursday on whether to expel three Democratic members for their demonstration calling for gun control following the Nashville school shooting, an extraordinary move that the chamber has used only a handful of times since the Civil War.
Reps. Gloria Johnson, Justin Jones and Justin Pearson are the subjects of the ouster vote. Last week, just days after six people, including three children, were fatally shot at The Covenant School in Nashville, the trio chanted back and forth from the chamber floor with gun control supporters who packed the gallery.
Their possible expulsion has once again thrust Tennessee into the national spotlight, underscoring not only the ability of the Republican supermajority to silence opponents, but also its increasing willingness to do so. The move sends a chilling message just as lawmakers grapple with how to respond to the devastating shooting.
Even before the House proceedings began, thousands flocked to the Capitol, loudly chanting to show their support for the so-called “Tennessee three.” Many traveled from Memphis and Knoxville, areas that Pearson and Johnson represent, and stood in a line that wrapped around the Capitol building to get inside.
The three held hands as they walked onto the House floor and Pearson raised his fist to the crowd during the Pledge of Allegiance.
Protesters outside the chamber held up signs that said, “School zones shouldn’t be war zones,” “Muskets didn’t fire 950 rounds per minute” with a photo of George Washington, and “You can silence a gun … but not the voice of the people.“
As the House began its proceedings on Thursday, Democratic Rep. Vincent Dixie stood before his colleagues and urged them to “not get distracted.” He mentioned the funeral for Mike Hill, one of the Nashville school shooting victims, which took place earlier in the week.
“I want us to keep in mind the sacrifice that he made to keep those kids safe,” Dixie said. “Each of us has power to make change.”
Before the expulsion vote, House members were set to debate more than 20 bills, including a school safety proposal requiring public and private schools to submit their building safety plans to the state. The bill did not address gun control, sparking criticisms from some Democratic members that lawmakers were only addressing a symptom and not the cause of school shootings.
Expulsions in the Tennessee General Assembly are extremely rare and considered an extraordinary action.
In 2019, lawmakers faced pressure to expel former Republican Rep. David Byrd after he faced accusations of sexual misconduct dating to when he was a high school basketball coach three decades earlier. Republicans declined to take any action, pointing out that he was reelected as the allegations surfaced. Byrd retired last year.
Last year, the state Senate expelled Democrat Katrina Robinson after she was convicted of using about $3,400 in federal grant money on wedding expenses instead of her nursing school.
Before that case, state lawmakers last ousted a House member in 2016 when the chamber voted 70-to-2 to remove Republican Rep. Jeremy Durham after an attorney general’s investigation detailed allegations of improper sexual contact with at least 22 women during his four years in office.
If Johnson, Jones or Pearson are expelled, the county commissions in their districts would get to pick replacements to serve until a special election in several months. The three would remain eligible to run in those.