WASHINGTON – State Democratic lawmakers who make up the “Tennessee Three” said Monday they want the conservative Volunteer State to become a “model for the nation” on gun control following a meeting with President Joe Biden at the White House.
Tennessee state Reps. Justin Jones, D-Nashville, Justin Pearson, D-Memphis, and Gloria Johnson, D-Knoxville, sat down with Biden and Vice President Kamara Harris for about an hour in the Oval Office.
It marked the culmination of the lawmakers’ rising profiles as they’ve come to symbolize the push for stronger gun laws – and, to some, democracy itself – amid Republican resistance. The lawmakers said they’re out to show gun reform is possible even in a solidly Republican state like Tennessee.
“This is not a moment. It is a movement,” Jones said, adding that “continued people pressure” will be required to pass gun reform in Tennessee and beyond. “We come from a state where we have an NRA-endorsed governor calling a special session on guns –something that’s unheard of – because of people power.”
Tennessee Republicans voted this month to expel Jones and Pearson, who are both Black, after they broke decorum by protesting for gun control on the House floor. Johnson was targeted by Republican leadership but kept her seat by a single vote.
“You’re standing up for our kids, you’re standing up for our communities,” Biden told the lawmakers, kicking off their meeting. “What the Republican legislature did was shocking, it was undemocratic.”
In Tennessee’s Republican-supermajority legislature, Democrats are virtually powerless, relegated to play to their bases with speeches and long-shot bills, but lacking the votes to pass laws.
But the “Tennessee Three,” as they became to be known, are no longer backbenchers even though their push for gun reform in Tennessee hasn’t succeeded.
Jones said he told Biden that “sometimes we have to do something outside of the ordinary” to produce change.
“If we can do it in the South, the South is going to set the tone for the rest of the nation,” he said. “I cannot emphasize that enough. We come from Tennessee – Tennessee, that they say is a place that is forgotten, a place that is impossible for change.”
Resonating beyond the Volunteer State
The Tennessee General Assembly adjourned this year’s legislative session Friday without taking major action on gun control in the four weeks since a deadly March 27 mass shooting at The Covenant School, a private Christian school in Nashville, killed three children and three adults.
In fact, the Tennessee Republican majority passed legislation that protects gun manufacturers from liability in lawsuits after shootings.
Yet the Tennessee Three are still optimistic for action during a special legislative session called by Republican Gov. Bill Lee for lawmakers to consider a measure that would allow law enforcement to temporarily take away firearms from individuals considered threats to themselves or others.
It’s unclear whether enough Republicans in the House will support the proposal for approval. Even whether to call it a red-flag law has set off debate.
“The message has been very clear from Tennesseans – both Republican and Democrat, white and black, and rich and poor – that something must be done,” Pearson said. “And in this special session, the expectation is that a law gets passed that can actually protect our communities.”
While the Tennessee Three haven’t turned their fame into legislative victories at home, their influence extends beyond their home state. The White House sees their story as the epitome of Americans’ frustration with gun laws: another mass shooting followed by inaction from lawmakers, particularly Republicans.
“These people are parents. We don’t think of them as Republicans and Democrats,” Johnson said of the thousands of protesters who have demanded action on guns at the Tennessee state Capitol. “They want to put their kids first. They want to put their kids before guns.”
Biden’s meeting with the Tennessee Three followed a virtual meeting Biden held with the three lawmakers earlier this month and a rally Harris held with them in Nashville.
Biden, who is expected to formally announce his 2024 reelection campaign Tuesday, renewed his calls for Congress to reinstate a national ban on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines after the Nashville mass shooting. He made similar appeals after shootings in Louisville, Ky.; Monterey Park, Calif.; Michigan State University; Buffalo, N.Y.; Uvalde, Texas; and elsewhere.
A recent poll by Gallup found America’s frustrations with gun laws is at an all-time high, with 63% expressing dissatisfaction. The issue resonates, in particular, with suburban voters who helped Democrats outperform expectations during last year’s midterm elections and were critical to Biden’s 2020 election win.
“Americans are sick of our gun violence epidemic and were outraged to see the response from Tennessee Republicans to expel two young Black men who are fighting for gun safety instead of passing laws proven to save lives,” said Shannon Watts, founder of Moms Demand Action, which pushes for gun control.
‘You cannot expel hope. You can’t expel a movement.’
Jones and Pearson were quickly reappointed to their seats by the local legislative bodies in Nashville and Memphis. Johnson, who survived her expulsion vote, noted afterward that she’s the only white lawmaker of the three.
The tension at the statehouse continued after Jones and Pearson returned. Both lawmakers objected to having their microphones cut off by Republicans during debate on anti-trans legislation Friday before lawmakers left Nashville for the year.
“The world is watching and you’re acting like fascists!” Johnson reportedly shouted from her desk.
The charismatic Jones, 27, the youngest member of the Tennessee legislature, has gotten the most national attention – so much so that a Washington, D.C., public relations firm is helping him field media requests. After the Nashville Metro Council voted to reappoint him, Jones led hundreds down Rep. John Lewis Way in a triumphant walk back to the state Capitol to reclaim his House seat.
A well-known local activist before he entered public office, Jones was elected for the first time in November in his heavily Democratic district after winning the party’s nomination by 238 votes last August. Jones started a campaign for Congress in 2020 to try to unseat then-U.S. Rep. Jim Cooper but failed to collect enough signatures to qualify.
“Our hope is not in this legislature,” Jones said ahead of the White House meeting. “But what gave me hope this session was the people. And I think that the Republican Party has lost a generation. Gen Z is going to shake things up come 2024. And it’s going to transform this state, like we saw in other states like Nevada and Georgia.”
Pearson, 28, just completed his first session as well. He came onto the political scene in Memphis when he co-founded the grassroots organization Memphis Community Against the Pipeline in response to a planned crude oil pipeline that would cut through backyards in South Memphis.
Pearson rattled Tennessee Republicans on the first day of session when he wore a traditional West African dashiki on the House floor. Now, he’s considered a potential replacement to U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Memphis, whenever he decides not to run again.
“You cannot expel hope and you can’t expel a movement,” Pearson said.
Johnson, 60, a retired teacher from Knoxville, was first elected to the legislature in 2012, lost her seat in 2014, but was later reelected in 2018.
She has long drawn the ire of Republicans. Two years ago, Johnson famously moved her desk into a hallway in Tennessee’s legislative building in defiance after she was assigned a small, windowless conference room as her office.
Johnson said the struggle for gun reform in Tennessee has fueled a movement nationally, pointing to a scene Tuesday: an estimated 9,000 people in Nashville locking arms from Monroe Carrell Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt University to the State Capitol, in support of gun reform. She said Democrats from Kentucky, where an April 10 shooting at a Louisville bank killed five people, joined the protest.
“We want legislation here for Tennessee. That’s who we represent,” Johnson said. “But if we can help motivate and energize young people across this country to get active and get in the movement – absolutely.”
Reach Joey Garrison on Twitter @joeygarrison.