‘Tennessee three’ praised by Biden in White House meeting

By: - April 25, 2023 6:45 am

Tennessee state Reps. Justin Pearson, left, Gloria Johnson, center, and Justin Jones, right, talk to reporters after meeting with President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris at the White House on Monday, April 24. (Ariana Figueroa/States Newsroom)

WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden on Monday met with three Tennessee state Democratic lawmakers, two of whom were expelled by the Republican-controlled state House after they protested for gun safety measures following a mass school shooting.

Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris met with Tennessee state Reps. Justin Jones of Nashville, Justin Pearson of Memphis and Gloria Johnson of Knoxville to discuss efforts to ban assault weapons, the firearm that is typically used in mass shootings, according to the White House.

“You’re standing up for our kids, you’re standing up for our communities,” Biden told the Tennessee lawmakers at the beginning of the Oval Office meeting, according to a pool report.

“What the Republican legislature did was shocking, it was undemocratic,” Biden added.

“We passed the most significant gun laws” in decades, Biden said, “but there’s more to do.” Biden in June 2022 signed into law bipartisan legislation that was the most comprehensive federal gun safety legislation in nearly 30 years, 

Johnson said their push for gun safety reform “really lit a fire in Tennessee,” pointing to the fact that their governor, who is supportive of the NRA, is calling a special session to address gun violence.

Jones said that they talked with Biden about how their state can lead the way in showing how to pass gun reform laws in red states.

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“Tennessee is going to set up a model for the nation about transforming this conversation around guns,” Jones said. “If we can do it in the South (pass gun reform), the South is going to set the tone for the rest of the nation.”

Johnson said they talked with Biden about red flag laws, bans of assault weapons and gun safety measures such as state laws to require guns be kept in safes. Red flag laws generally allow the courts to temporarily remove a firearm from an individual who is a threat to themselves or others, among other provisions.

The school shooting left six people, including three children, dead on March 27 at the Covenant School, a private K-12 Christian school in Nashville.

The three Democratic lawmakers days later took over the House floor podium to protest legislative inaction on gun safety legislation.

There have been 173 mass shootings this year alone, according to data from the Gun Violence Archive.

State House Republicans said those Democrats violated the House floor rules on proper decorum for their 40-minute protest. 

Republican state lawmakers held votes to expel all three, but only Jones and Pearson, two young Black Democratic state lawmakers, were expelled. Johnson, who is white, avoided expulsion by Republicans by one vote.

“You cannot expel hope and you can’t expel a movement,” Pearson said outside the White House.

Both expelled Democrats were quickly reinstated, but the decision to remove them, and to hold quick hearings on their expulsion, brought national attention to Tennessee state politics.

Harris also visited Nashville in early April to meet with the three lawmakers, along with various civil rights leaders.

Tennessee Republican Gov. Bill Lee is calling for a special session of the legislature pertaining to gun reform after the legislature adjourned without passing any measures relating to gun safety following the Covenant School shooting.

“There is broad agreement that dangerous, unstable individuals who intend to harm themselves and others should not have access to weapons. We also share a strong commitment to preserving Second Amendment rights, ensuring due process and addressing the heart of the problem with strengthened mental health resources,” Lee said in a statement.

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Ariana Figueroa
Ariana Figueroa

Ariana covers the nation's capital for States Newsroom. Her areas of coverage include politics and policy, lobbying, elections and campaign finance.

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