The GOP won in Tennessee, but will lose the fight on gun safety

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In the annals of brazenly destructive attacks on democracy, last week’s vote by Tennessee’s Republican-controlled state House to expel two Democratic lawmakers who led a decorum-busting protest over the cold-blooded murders of children is right up there.

In case you missed it, state Reps. Justin Jones, of Nashville; Justin Pearson, of Memphis, and Gloria Johnson, of Knoxville, disrupted the House’s proceedings last week for an utterly unthinkable 15 seconds, prompting a 45-minute delay in the people’s business, as they called for action in the wake of a mass shooting at a Christian school in Nashville last month that left three children and three adults dead.

Jones and Pearson, both of whom are Black, were booted from the chamber. Johnson, who is white, narrowly avoided expulsion.

The vote, which came days after Wisconsin voters resoundingly elected a progressive to that state’s highest court, securing the first liberal majority in 15 years, and the election of a solidly progressive candidate as Chicago’s next mayor, put the cap on a week that left Republicans looking even more dramatically out of step with the mood of the country.

But this historic act of partisan overreaction and retaliation in Tennessee is par for the course for a Republican Party that, while enjoying majorities in state legislatures and governor’s mansions, has nonetheless not won the presidential popular vote in nearly 20 years, and continues to insist on polarizing policies that cater to an ever-shrinking base.

The irony is that Tennessee Republicans could have pursued any course of action, short of this political death sentence, if they wanted to punish Democrats for what amounted to an essential act of political theater.

Democrats noted that Republicans in the chamber had evaded censure even though they had been accused of more serious criminal offenses.

It also, in the end, was a missed opportunity for Republicans to stand with Democrats on an issue that impacts all of us: The ongoing, wholesale, and absolutely avoidable slaughter of our children.

And if you think such an act is a political impossibility, I’d urge you to consider the example of Pennsylvania in 2020, where Black Democratic lawmakers engineered a takeover of the House floor to call for the passage of police reform bills at the height of that summer of civil rights unrest.

In that instance, rather than punish the protesters, who most assuredly blew through the chamber’s decorum rules, then-GOP House Speaker Mike Turzai, of Allegheny County, backed the reform push and called for a special session on the issue.

That act of compromise ended up a win for both sides.

Republicans got to look reasonably sensible as they defended their majority during the 2020 presidential cycle. And it was a victory for Democrats, who could point to the still-potent power of organizing and protest as a force for social change during a period of seismic change in our national dialogue.

There is no denying that the force of public opinion is on the side of common sense gun violence reduction measures.

And the fear that takes hold in your throat when you send a loved one – teacher, student, aide, cafeteria worker, custodian, or administrator – off to school on the morning after yet another mass shooting, hoping they will come home to you alive, respects no partisan boundary.

So there was a chance here for Republicans to do something – anything – however modest to stem the bloodshed. The eyes of the world – and the eyes of the tens of thousands of Tennesseans who are now without representation – were on them.

But they blew it. Completely.

The overreach, of course, is familiar. Not content with toppling Roe v. Wade, GOP lawmakers and their allies are mounting brutal attacks on the remaining avenues to abortion access. Not content with control over local school boards, they look to ban books and to disappear transgender and LGBTQ+ kids from their own communities.

The victories, however, also have been Pyrrhic.

Voters in Kansas last year rejected a Republican-backed effort to strip abortion protections from the Sunflower State’s constitution. Attacks on abortion rights and voting rights helped Democrats erase what initially was expected to be a wave year for the GOP in last year’s midterm elections.

Taking to Twitter, Pennsylvania state Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta, a Philadelphia Democrat and one of the party’s rising stars, predicted that Republicans had “lost an entire generation of voters.

“We’ve witnessed, in all its naked ugliest, the sins of racism and authoritarianism on full display,” Kenyatta, who’s currently seeking the Democratic nomination for state auditor general, continued. “You can’t expel a movement. You can’t silence the cry for justice. You can’t put out the flame of liberty.”

If there is a sea change in our long overdue national reckoning on gun violence, historians may point to Thursday night in Nashville as the moment everything changed.

Copyright 2023 John L. Micek, distributed exclusively by Cagle Cartoons newspaper syndicate.

An award-winning political journalist, John L. Micek is Editor-in-Chief of The Pennsylvania Capital-Star in Harrisburg, Pa. Email him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @ByJohnLMicek.