- By Holly Honderich
- in Washington
The Tennessee statehouse has expelled two Democratic politicians who led a gun control protest that halted legislative proceedings last week.
In a rare move, the Republican-controlled House of Representatives voted 72-25 to expel Justin Jones and 69-26 to remove Justin Pearson.
But an expulsion vote failed against a third Democratic lawmaker, Gloria Johnson, who also joined the protest.
Crowds of protesters have flooded the State Capitol since a school shooting.
The 27 March attack at Nashville’s Covenant School killed six people, including three children.
The so-called “Tennessee Three” took to the House floor chanting “no action, no peace” during a protest on 30 March, which also saw hundreds of pro-gun control demonstrators converge on the statehouse.
Mr Jones, 27, and Mr Pearson, 28, used a megaphone and banged on the House lectern as they made rousing speeches and addressed the protesters who crowded around the chamber’s public viewing platform.
“We don’t want to be up here, but we have no choice but to find a way… to disrupt business as normal, because business as normal is our children dying,” Mr Pearson said.
The chamber’s proceedings were brought to a standstill for nearly an hour.
All three also chanted “enough is enough” and “power to the people”. Political analysists said Ms Johnson may have been spared expulsion because she did not use a megaphone.
However she has suggested that Republicans did not expel her because she is white, whereas Mr Jones and Mr Pearson are both black.
US President Joe Biden, a Democrat, slammed the expulsions as “shocking, undemocratic, and without precedent”.
Mr Jones told the BBC that the move had left 78,000 people in one of the state’s most diverse districts without representation.
He said an “extreme republican supermajority, almost completely a white caucus” had expelled the “two youngest black lawmakers because we stood demanding action on gun violence”.
Tennessee’s House of Representatives consists of 75 Republicans and 23 Democrats.
Lawmakers argued for hours about the expulsions on Thursday, which are the first such actions taken without the support of both parties in Tennessee’s modern history.
Ms Johnson was just one vote short of the required two-thirds majority to expel her, with her supporters in the chamber cheering at the result that she would remain.
The three lawmakers acknowledged they broke House rules by speaking without being formally recognised, but insisted their actions did not warrant expulsion.
But Republicans said the trio had brought “disorder and dishonour to the House”.
Some Republican members said the Democrats’ actions amounted to an insurrection, with House Speaker Cameron Sexton, a Republican, comparing the incident to the Capitol Riots.
Another Republican legislator, Gino Bulso, said they had “effectively conducted a mutiny.”
But Mr Jones and Mr Pearson – or The Justins, as they have been called by some analysts and politicians – could soon return since expulsion does not disqualify an ex-representative from running for office.
A county governing body also has the power to appoint an interim representative in the case of a vacancy. So the expelled lawmakers could be appointed to fill their empty seats in the interim, then run for re-election and be back in the General Assembly within months, according to The Tennessean newspaper.
Expulsion votes are exceptionally rare. In Tennessee, the House of Representatives has only twice voted to expel members. In 1980 it removed a sitting lawmaker who was convicted of soliciting a bribe and in 2016 a majority whip who was facing allegations of sexual misconduct was expelled.
But those expulsions had strong support from both parties.
Before Thursday’s votes began, House members debated more than 20 bills, some relating to school safety.
Throughout the discussion, Mr Jones rose to speak several times, accusing his colleagues of passing “band-aid” legislation in response to mass shootings.
“It is not action that will make our students safe,” he said. “We, as elected officials, have a moral responsibility to listen to these young people who are on the frontlines who are terrified, who are here, crying and pleading for their lives.”
In response, Republican Mark White – visibly aggravated – told Mr Jones: “Look at me. Look at the other 97 [lawmakers]. This is exactly what we’re trying to do.”
Mr White continued: “I have been up here for 14 years, you have been in this assembly for two months, three months.”
Tennessee has some of the most relaxed gun control laws in the country. In 2021, the state passed a measure that allows residents over the age of 21 to carry handguns – concealed and unconcealed – without a permit.
Lawmakers and gun rights groups are working to lower that age to 18.
There is no system of universal background checks and no “red flag” laws, which are designed to allow authorities to temporarily seize legally owned guns from those found to be a danger to themselves or others.
Police said the Nashville shooter, who opened fire last week at the privately run Christian school, had legally purchased seven firearms on separate occasions.
Three of the weapons were used to kill three nine-year-old children and three members of the school staff.
Additional reporting by Tiffany Wertheimer