Tennessee state Reps. Justin Pearson of Memphis and Justin Jones of Nashville were back on the House floor this week for a special session — focused on guns and public safety laws — Gov. Bill Lee (R) requested back in April.
This was the two young, Black Democrats’ first legislative session since comfortably reclaiming their seats in an early August special election: the seats Republicans ousted them from this spring for participating in a peaceful gun protest on the House floor.
The chaos that descended on the state House as Pearson and Jones were expelled from their seats continued to overwhelm the chamber during this week’s special session, with much of the legislative body’s official business focused on what appeared to be a state House Republican retribution agenda over the events that unfolded last spring.
Tennessee House Republicans used their majority to pass floor rules for the special session to silence Democratic lawmakers and the protestors that filled the state House. They also rejected dozens of Democrat-proposed bills that would have placed more restrictions on gun ownership, instead spending their time attempting to advance bills that would allow for more guns on school grounds. The legislation would’ve dialed back restrictions on certain people, like off-duty law enforcement officers, former members of the military and Tennesseans with enhanced carry permits, to carry in school zones.
The chaotic week began with lawmakers setting new House floor rules for the special session. Republicans, who hold an overwhelming majority in the House, passed a new rule allowing the Speaker of the House to limit or stop other lawmakers from speaking if he felt their speech was disrupting legislative business. The rule went so far as to give the Speaker the power to block representatives from speaking on the House floor for up to three days. And if a second offense is committed, lawmakers can be suspended indefinitely, according to the new rule.
Republican lawmakers also passed a rule that limits how many people can be present in the rotunda of the state Capitol. They also banned protesters from holding signs — even small ones like an A4 sized piece of paper — during committee hearings and in legislative chambers.
During a Tuesday hearing, some demonstrators defied the new rule in protest, holding up small signs that read “1 Kid > All the Guns.”
In response, Republicans ordered state highway patrol troopers to physically remove people who refused to put their signs away.
When protesters continued to hold up signs, committee Republicans ordered the entire room to be cleared. Only members of the media were allowed to remain in the room to observe the hearing.
Democrats publicly condemned Republicans for their hypocrisy, emphasizing that protesters were escorted out for silently holding signs while those carrying a concealed weapon were allowed to stay.
“The Tennessee Constitution says that the People’s House, the doors shall be open. But instead, we have cordoned off the rotunda, we’ve shut off one-half of the gallery, just for lobbyists to have special seats,” Jones said on MSNBC this week as he criticized GOP’s efforts to suppress free speech in the state Capitol.
In response, early Wednesday morning, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Tennessee filed a complaint asking a Davidson County judge to block the new rule and allow protesters to display signs during legislative proceedings.
Chancellor Ann Martin quickly ruled on the issue, filing a temporary order that allows people to bring in signs to the House gallery in the Capitol and the meeting rooms until Sep. 5, way past when the special session is expected to last.
Thursday night, the House did pass some bills, including an appropriations bill with $30 million for higher education safety grants. The bill that would’ve relaxed restrictions on who could carry guns on public school property ultimately died on a tied vote after an hours-long committee meeting Wednesday that was disrupted by Covenant School parents protesting Republicans’ attempts to vote on the bill without debate. Covenant is, of course, where the school shooting that left six dead took place earlier this year, prompting the mass protest at the state Capitol that culminated in Jones and Pearson’s expulsion.
State House Democrats denounced their Republican colleagues for failing to support gun safety proposals and other bills that would create real change to the state’s current gun laws by enacting some common sense policies.
“We silenced their voice with some of the rules, cordoning people off, not letting them gain access to the galleries and the signs and all of that,” Minority Leader Karen Camper of Memphis said, according to The Tennessean. “I feel like we further silence them by not addressing the real issues that they wanted us to address in this special session.”
After Thursday night’s limited bills, the House recessed for the week. They are expected to return for a floor session on Monday.
“Now we’re going to come back in a couple of days and still not take up any meaningful legislation that pertain to gun safety and gun violence in this state,” Camper added.
Correction: The original version of this story misnamed Covenant School. We regret the error.