President Joe Biden condemned Tennessee Republicans’ expulsion of two lawmakers who protested a deadly Nashville school shooting last week, calling the episode unprecedented and calling out 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.”
The statement 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.
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 lawmakers had participated in a March 30 protest, including using a bullhorn from the House floor, over the March 27 shooting deaths of three 9-year-olds and three adults.
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.
It also has a clear racial component that hangs in the air for Biden, whose electoral fortunes rest heavily on turnout of Black voters. The third Democrat who held onto her seat in a narrow vote, Gloria Johnson, flatly attributed the outcomes to race — saying Republicans expelled two Black men but not a white woman.
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.
(With assistance from Steven T. Dennis.)
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