- Republicans in the Tennessee State Legislature blocked discussions about gun safety laws from Democratic state representatives, even after the Covenant School Shooting in Nashville.
- Reps. Gloria Johnson, Justin Jones, and Justin Pearson were subjected to expulsion from the Legislature for joining protesters in speaking out. Jones and Pearson were ousted in a vote, while Johnson remained.
- Rep. Gloria Johnson has continued to push for stricter gun safety laws against her Republican colleagues.
It’s simply unacceptable for Democratic Tennessee State Rep. Gloria Johnson that her Republican colleagues in the State Legislature refuse to consider passing any gun safety laws after six innocents were slaughtered at The Covenant School by an assailant armed with an AR-15 and two other guns.
A former Covenant School student under care for an emotional disorder was able to legally purchase the guns in order to ‘wreck havoc’ at the Christian Covenant School, according to Nashville Police Chief John Drake.
But despite the fact that three nine-year-old students, the head of the school, a substitute teacher, and a custodian were gunned down and that thousands of parents, students, and other Tennesseeans demonstrated for days inside and outside the Legislature, Republican lawmakers were so intransigent, they blocked even attempts to discuss gun violence on the State House floor repeatedly, in the week after the March 27, 2023 massacre.
Rep. Johnson tried multiple times to talk to all her fellow lawmakers as did her Democratic colleagues, Representatives Justin Jones and Justin Pearson, but their mics were cut off.
“In a healthy democracy, even if you are in a super minority (like the Democrats are in the Tennessee Legislature), you would discuss and debate and they (the Republicans) would allow the opposition’s discussion on legislation,” Representative Gloria Johnson contends to HollywoodLife.com in an exclusive interview. “They (The Republicans) are all about silencing voices and silencing opposition, which is a scary thing, and it erodes democracy.”
It’s because Johnson, Jones, and Pearson refused to be silenced and took to the Tennessee House floor with a bullhorn to demand gun reform, that they were subject to expulsion from the state Legislature.
Johnson, a white woman, survived a vote to oust her by one vote while Pearson and Jones were expelled, and Johnson was frank about why she believes she wasn’t removed. “I am a 60-year-old white woman, and they are two young Black men,” she told the press.
Fortunately, Representative Jones and Representative Pearson were quickly reinstated by their districts and Johnson now tells HollywoodLife that they are all focused on a long-term strategy to combat Tennessee’s current laws which give very access to guns .
She was horrified by the massacre and has been inspired and galvanized by the thousands of students and parents who demonstrated and demanded gun safety laws, outside and inside the Tennessee Legislature in the days after the tragic shooting.
Students begged her for laws that will protect them from armed assailants. “They talk about what it’s like in their school day, knowing that no one is willing to protect them. No one is willing to show political courage to do something to limit guns coming to the schoolhouse door,” she shares.
And who can blame students for being terrified that they too will face a hail of deadly gunfire in their schools or on their college campuses? In 2023, there have already been a record-breaking 89 shootings at K-12 schools, and 75 students and adults were killed. By February 15, there were also a record-breaking 202 mass shootings in the U.S. up until May 9, including some on college campuses. Guns are now the leading cause of death for U.S. children and teenagers with nearly 3,600 killed in gun-related incidents in 2021.
Tennessee parents also filled the crowds demonstrating for gun safety laws outside the Legislature after the Covenant shooting and Johnson was moved by their fears. “I talked to a lot of moms who had just dropped their kids off at school, and they were teary-eyed when they said to me it was so hard since they were wondering if their kids would be there in the afternoon when they went to pick them up. They realized that it was possible that they would not be okay by the end of the day,” she said.
It was because of those students and those moms who told Johnson, Jones, and Pearson about their fears and their need for kids to be protected from gun violence, that the Tennessee Three broke “decorum,” and went to what is called “The Well” of the Legislature and spoke out after Republicans had repeatedly shut them down.
“We felt that they (parents and students) needed to be recognized. We wanted to tell them that we saw them, that we heard them, that we cared about their issues, and we were going to fight to pass common-sense gun laws. That’s all we wanted to do, because we were not being allowed to speak,” she tells HollywoodLife.com.
Johnson knows that the road ahead to getting any of Tennessee’s lax gun laws to be even a little bit more restrictive, will be very tough, as it is in any of the Republican-controlled “red” states. In fact after the Covenant School massacre and protests, the Tennessee went a Legislature went ahead and passed and Governor Bill Lee signed a bill to protect gun and ammunitions dealers, manufacturers and sellers against lawsuits.
The NRA, the Gun Owners Of America, and The National Association for Gun Rights all contribute heavily to Republican candidates, and the Tennessee Firearms Association slammed Governor Bill Lee when he did attempt after the Covenant massacre ,to have the Legislature also pass a “protective order” prohibiting access to weapons for people deemed to be a danger to themselves and others. The Executive Director John Harris called it a “knee-jerk emotional response to murders.”
If Tennessee Governor Lee had an emotional response to the murders of children that would be human and understandable, but as well, Johnson explains that the governor’s wife is a former teacher, who was a friend to one of the Covenant educators who was murdered. In fact, his wife was supposed to have had dinner with her on the night of the day that she was shot to death.
Talk about gun violence hitting close to home for the governor.
Johnson, who has served in the Tennessee Legislature, for a total of 8 years, now representing Knox County, says that she, Rep. Jones, Rep. Pearson, Tennessee’s student organizers, and other Democrats will work on building momentum across the state in the summer and fall, for tougher gun laws before the Legislature reconvenes next January.
What Johnson will never support is a Republican-proposed law in Tennessee to arm teachers. A former teacher herself, who was teaching at Knoxville’s Central High School in April 2008, when a 15-year-old was murdered with a semi-automatic pistol by a classmate, she clearly recalls the terror of students that day and the trauma that followed.
“I saw hundreds of kids running out of the main building and down the hill towards my classroom. They were screaming and crying… I’ll never forget that day… You never forget about the students that are lost, hearing those sirens, and seeing the terror on the children’s faces,” she told Newsweek.
Neither a school security officer nor a school resource officer was able to stop the shooting, which singer Kelsea Ballerini, a student at the school, witnessed firsthand. “I watched Ryan McDonald, my 15-year-old classmate at Central High School, lose his life to a gun in our cafeteria,” she told the audience of the 2023 CMT Awards, which she co-hosted. She pleaded for “real action” after the Covenant School Shooting.
Johnson now calls a Tennessee Republican proposal to arm teachers “a ridiculous idea.” “It’s ludicrous to think that that’s a solution. If you teach in high school, and you have a gun that can be really dangerous, and if you’re a teacher with a gun, do you also get paid for being a security officer? Teachers are already doing four jobs.” And she points out that police officers have less than 30% accuracy when they are returning fire. “How much accuracy is a teacher going to have ?”
Johnson and her colleagues will be working to build support from voters of all political leanings in the next months for tightened laws that will “keep guns from getting to the school house,” not “having gun battles in the classroom.”
Johnson is optimistic that Tennesseans will support sensible gun safety laws and that the state is not as conservative as its extreme gerrymandering makes it appear. “Our state typically votes 40% to 45% Democratic,” she contends.
She’s also certain that the state’s women will be furious about the near-total abortion ban that the Tennessee supermajority of Republicans passed, which the state is now enforcing with very limited exceptions to save the life of the mother. Abortion is banned from the time of conception.
She is convinced that most women in the state aren’t aware of the complete strictness of the law. “My mother is a Republican, and when I told my mother about it, she said, ‘Gloria, that can’t be true.’ I’m like, ‘Mom, yes it’s true. They passed this bill.’ And, she said, ‘Well, they’re going to have to change it.’ And I said, ‘Mom, they have no intention of changing it.’”
She asserts that the state is already feeling the negative impact on women’s health with pregnant women having to be sent six hours north to North Carolina in ambulances to have necessary miscarriage and abortion care. That situation won’t be an option now that the Republican supermajority in North Carolina overrode Democratic Governor Roy Cooper’s veto of a new 10 and 12-week abortion ban in that state. “We’re also in a situation now where we can’t recruit OBGYNs to come here to do their residencies, because they can’t get the training they need to get their medical certifications. And, we also have OBGYNs that want to leave the state and we already have a shortage in our rural areas,” Johnson points out. “This is just fundamentally ignorant when it comes to keeping women in this state safe when they want to have children.”
She points to a well-known OBGYN, Dr Leilah Zahedi – Spung in Tennessee, who was a specialist in high-risk pregnancies, who decided to move out of the state to Colorado. “She’s like, ‘I will be at so much risk here because I will have more terminations than other doctors,’ and she was afraid that she would be targeted for that.”
Zahedi-Spung told the press that she had to desperately send a pregnant Tennessee woman with dangerously high blood pressure by ambulance to North Carolina several hundred miles away to get a lifesaving abortion and by the time the woman arrived, she was showing signs of kidney failure. “She kept asking if she was going to die,” Zahedi-Spung told the Wall St Journal. The obstetrician was extremely relieved that the patient survived.
Tennessee was also infamously the first state to pass an “anti-drag bill,” which prohibits male or female impersonators from performing anywhere a minor might be present. The law has been blocked temporarily by U.S. District Judge Thomas Parker, who called the law vague and overly broad, plus he wrote that the state failed to present a compelling argument as to why Tennessee even needed the law.
As Johnson explains, Republicans “kept saying that people were doing obscene things in front of children, which is not happening. No, and we already have obscenity laws on the books that say you can’t be obscene in front of children, no matter what you’re wearing… But drag is not obscene 99% of the time and certainly not in front of children. And nobody’s forced to watch it.”
The Republican culture wars in Tennessee, including overriding parental rights and banning gender-affirming care for adolescents, along with the state’s anti-trans law, are a huge source of frustration for Johnson, who insists that she wants to focus on making life better for her constituents and all Tennesseeans.
The Republicans in the state Legislature “didn’t do anything this year to improve the lives of Tennessee families,” she asserts to HollywoodLife.com. “Nothing, and you know last year when I was running for office, we knocked on thousands of doors. We made thousands of phone calls to voters. And never once did a voter tell me that they wanted to see laws against drag queens or laws taking away transgender care or that they wanted to see even more guns. No one said that. They said they wanted to see Medicaid expansion, they wanted to see paid family leave, and they wanted sensible gun legislation. None of the things that people are asking for, did they ( the Republican supermajority in the State Legislature) address” this year. “It’s remarkable.”
Nonetheless, Representative Johnson along with the other “Tennessee Three” members, Rep. Jones and Rep. Pearson, will keep fighting for what would be truly remarkable and life-saving for Tennessee families – building enough support for gun safety laws that the State Legislature will have to “do something.”
“I’m from a red district, but in my district, a majority of Republicans, Independents, and Democrats support red flag laws, background checks, and safe storage laws… If we can get 26 out of the 75 Republicans to get on board with something that actually has some teeth in it, we can get something passed that will put a dent in gun violence.”
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