APTOPIX Tennessee Lawmaker Expulsion

Former Rep. Justin Jones, D-Nashville, Rep. Gloria Johnson, D-Knoxville, and former Rep. Justin Pearson, D-Memphis, raises their hands outside the House chamber after Jones and Pearson were expelled from the legislature on Thursday, in Nashville, Tenn. George Walker IV/Associated Press

WASHINGTON — President Biden condemned Tennessee Republicans’ expulsion of two lawmakers who protested a deadly Nashville school shooting last week, calling the episode unprecedented and criticizing GOP leaders for refusing to enact tighter gun-control laws.

The “expulsion of lawmakers who engaged in peaceful protest is shocking, undemocratic, and without precedent,” Biden said in a statement. “We’ve continued to see Republican officials across America double down on dangerous bills that make our schools, places of worship, and communities less safe. Our kids continue to pay the price.”

Hours after the statement, Vice President Kamala Harris announced she would fly to Nashville Friday to meet with legislators in the aftermath of the saga.

The White House action came after Republican lawmakers in Tennessee voted Thursday to expel Justin Jones and Justin Pearson over their participation in a March 30 protest over the shooting at Covenant School. Three 9-year-olds and three adults were killed in the attack.


Tennessee Lawmaker Expulsion

Former Rep. Justin Pearson, D-Memphis, waves to his supporters in the gallery as he delivers his final remarks on the floor of the House chamber as he is expelled from the legislature on Thursday, in Nashville, Tenn. Tennessee Republicans ousted two of three House Democrats for using a bullhorn to shout support for pro-gun control protesters in the House chamber. George Walker IV/Associated Press

Yet the statement also underscored what even Biden has said is his powerlessness to impose more restrictive measures on guns given Republican opposition. He again urged congress to ban assault weapons and high-capacity magazines among other measures, but made no promises and offered no action of his own.


In another statement later in the day, the White House said senior officials had met with lawmakers from six other states on ways to “hold gun manufacturers accountable,” including Biden’s longstanding call to roll back liability protections for gun makers.

Jones and Pearson, who are Black, were only the fourth and fifth lawmakers expelled from the Tennessee legislature since the Civil War. Another Democratic legislator, who is white, narrowly avoided expulsion.

The episode has a clear racial component and allowed Biden to show solidarity with a key constituency – Black voters – whose choices will sway his electoral fortunes. The third Democrat who held onto her seat, Gloria Johnson, flatly attributed the outcomes to race – saying Republicans expelled two Black men but not a white woman.

The lawmakers had participated in a March 30 protest, including using a bullhorn from the House floor, over the March 27 shooting deaths.

In a Zoom briefing with reporters on Friday, Jones called for more protests, saying Tennessee has been the “tip of the spear” in an assault on human rights.

“It is easier to get an AR-15 than it is to vote,” Jones said.


Rev. William J. Barber II, president of Repairers of the Breach and co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign, said in the same call that clergy would carry children’s caskets at a protest in Tennessee on April 17.

Barber called for confronting the public with what happens to children’s bodies shot by AR-15s, likening the issue to the photos published of Emmett Till after his killing in 1955.

“We’ve got to keep the caskets and the deaths before the public,” he said. “The coverup is what keeps us from cleaning it up.”

Republicans, who hold a 75 to 24 majority in the Tennessee legislature, said Jones and Pearson breached House protocol by speaking without getting permission from House leadership. That enraged Democrats, who pointed to the rarity of such expulsions and said the group’s actions didn’t go nearly far enough to merit such a severe response.

“America is in the midst of a gun violence epidemic. MAGA Republicans respond by baselessly expelling legislators in Tennessee,” tweeted House Democratic Leader Hakeem Jeffries of New York. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer also condemned the move.

Until Thursday, the Tennessee House had expelled only three other lawmakers since the Civil War, all for far more serious infractions, including the criminal conviction of one lawmaker and multiple sexual harassment allegations against another.


The votes were also held against the din of widespread, continued protests at the legislature, led largely by students and children demanding stronger gun measures.

“Rather than ban assault weapons, these Republican lawmakers in Tennessee are assaulting democracy,” Jones told MSNBC on Thursday.

House Speaker Cameron Sexton, a Republican, tweeted earlier this week that lawmakers’ actions “are and will always be unacceptable, and they break several rules of decorum and procedure” and “took away the voices of the protesters.”

Sexton also compared their actions to the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol in Washington. “What they did today was equivalent — at least equivalent, maybe worse depending on how you look at it — of doing an insurrection in the Capitol,” Sexton said in a radio interview.

Biden has long pushed for gun reform in Washington in the wake of a series of mass shootings. Everytown for Gun Safety, which advocates gun-safety measures, is backed by Michael Bloomberg, founder and majority owner of Bloomberg LP.

“It’s called exposure, exposure,” Biden said after the Nashville shootings, batting away questions about lawmakers balking at his call. “I’m going to keep calling it out, remind people that they’re not acting. They should act.”

Two of Tennessee’s largest cities are now without representation in the legislative session’s final few weeks of this year.

Bloomberg’s Steven T. Dennis contributed to this report.

Related Headlines

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or login first for digital access. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.