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How a Tennessee Special Session on Gun Violence Ended in Chaos

6 minute read

Five months ago, a shooter killed six people at a Christian elementary school in Nashville. On Tuesday, a special session of the Tennessee Assembly sparked by that tragedy ended in shoving, shouting and a Black Memphis Democrat calling the House speaker a white supremacist—and the passage of no laws that would restrict access to guns. 

It was a bleak ending to a tense legislative session that drew national attention to the intractable debate over gun rights in Tennessee, and the efforts by the state's Republican supermajority to silence those pushing for stronger gun safety laws.

Republican Governor Bill Lee had called for the special session in May in the wake of the mass shooting at the Covenant School, a presbyterian church in Nashville. It lasted just over a week. Numerous proposals restricting access to firearms went nowhere. Videos of the moments after the House adjourned on Tuesday show Rep. Justin Pearson, D-Memphis, trailing Republican House Speaker Cameron Sexton as he begins to leave the chamber. Pearson was holding a sign that said “Protect Kids, Not Guns.”

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“I told him that it was shameful that we have wasted time being here and we have not done a single thing to protect our kids,” Pearson tells TIME. “Then, as he’s walking by me, he violently shoves me up towards the clerk’s desk—hitting me in my chest—and then he starts to scream at me as if I had done something to him.” Sexton recounted his side of the incident with reporters on Tuesday, saying Pearson “comes in and pops me.” Sexton did not respond on Wednesday to a request to comment from TIME.

Pearson adds that he has been in touch with lawyers in relation to a personal injury claim against Rep. Sexton over the episode. He says he is concerned that letting it go could normalize such acts in the Capitol, he says.

Ahead of the special session, Lee, a longtime supporter of gun rights who lost two close friends in the shooting, expressed a willingness to sign some gun control legislation. In particular, Lee supported a so-called red flag law that would allow courts and police to temporarily remove firearms from people for up to 180 days if the judge found a “current” and significant risk of harm to themselves or others. But the proposal was unpopular with his own party. “There were low expectations going in. Legislators had already indicated that they were unlikely to do very much in terms of the governor's request,” says Bruce Oppenheimer, a professor emeritus of political science at Vanderbilt University in Nashville.

Most Republicans did not engage on the topic of restricting firearm access. “I think it’s good to remember that Tennessee is not just Nashville, Tennessee is not just Memphis,” said State Representative Jeremy Faison, a member of the House Republican leadership, according to the New York Times. “There’s literally no one in my district asking me to do anything like what they asked.”

Democrats accused the governor of a failure of leadership. Lawmakers approved funneling more money towards an existing state program that provides free gun safes, and codified an executive order on background checks. It also approved millions of dollars in funding for school safety grants and mental health agencies. The governor has maintained that the special session was a success.

State political observers and activists say they were stunned at the extent to which Republicans worked during the special session to suppress those pushing for stronger gun safety measures. Republicans created new House rules that would allow for the silencing of lawmakers who were viewed as going off-topic, as well as a ban on members of the public holding signs in the House gallery and committee rooms. “Essentially, the House was establishing the right to send dissenting representatives to the corner until they learn their lesson,” says Ken Paulson, director of the Free Speech Center at Middle Tennessee State University. “It could not be more transparent that this body did not want input from constituents or Democrats on the single most important topic to the state at this time.”

Democrats pushed back against Republican claims that the new rules were about maintaining order in the chamber. “These bogus rules were written not with decorum in mind; they were written with race in mind,” says Pearson, who argues the Speaker was trying to “bludgeon dissent of people who do not look like him and who disagree with his positions.”

The sign provision was struck down by a Nashville Court last week after three women who were removed from a House committee meeting for holding signs advocating for gun control sued on first Amendment grounds, with the help of the ACLU. The rule pertaining to lawmakers remained.

Pearson and Rep. Justin Jones, a Nashville Democrat, became national celebrities in April after the Republican supermajority expelled them from their elected seats for taking part in a protest following the school shooting. The duo officially won their seats back in an August special election.
On Monday, the second-to-last day of the special session, Sexton silenced Jones by ruling twice from the House dais that Jones was out of order. That led to a 70-20 vote in support of silencing him for the rest of the day. “I was told that if I keep speaking, I will be silenced for up to three days and then the next offense will be indefinitely,” Jones said. “It sent a chilling effect that you can’t even speak as a representative of your district because you would be silenced permanently.”

Jones disputes that his remarks were off-topic because he spoke about having more mental health counselors as opposed to police in schools for a bill that would have increased law enforcement presence in schools. He alleges that he was silenced because he had sent a letter to all House members saying that he would call for a vote of no confidence in the House Speaker. “The Speaker used that as an opportunity to stop my vote of no confidence,” Jones said. “ He had told his members that he was afraid of the vote of no confidence because apparently some of the Republican members were even frustrated with his leadership.” 

Earlier this month, during a hearing about a proposal to arm teachers, a House subcommittee chairman ordered state troopers to eject protesters from the room for being disruptive. They left in tears. Sarah Shoop Neumann, a mother of a young son at the Covenant School, was among the parents who was temporarily kicked out of the hearing. The restrictions on protesting, she says, “took some dignity away from us, that we couldn’t even hold a sign to honor our school and the lives that were lost.”

She adds that she does not think the special session produced any legislation that will have a material impact on gun violence in Tennessee.

“What we spent all summer hearing was we are so sorry that six people from your school died including three innocent children, but we can't do anything involving firearms because of the Second Amendment,” Neumann says.

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Write to Sanya Mansoor at sanya.mansoor@time.com