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Children Cried, Racism Thrived, Democracy Died – 10 Terrible Days in Tennessee

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Picture: REUTERS/Cheney Orr//File Photo – Protesters gather outside the Tennessee State Capitol to call for an end to gun violence and support stronger gun laws after a deadly shooting at the Covenant School in Nashville, Tennessee, U.S. March 30, 2023.

By Steven Harper

On March 27, the Covenant School killer in Nashville used two semi-automatic weapons and a handgun to end the lives of three nine-year-old students, the head of school, a substitute teacher, and a maintenance worker.

Republicans shrugged. They said there was no role for the federal government in protecting the nation’s children from gun violence. Then, walking hand in hand with the National Rifle Association, they resumed their successful efforts to loosenstate gun restrictions across the country, including Tennessee.

Ten days later, a GOP supermajority in the Tennessee House of Representatives punished dissent, undermined democracy, and became a case study in institutional racism. But they transformed a petty grievance about legislative “decorum” into a major national news story. They have energized gun control and civil rights advocates in the way that the Supreme Court’s poorly reasoned abortion decision galvanized the pro-choice movement.

Guns and Money

Since 1998, the NRA and its affiliates have spent more than $200 million on political activities, nearly all of it to support Republicans.

In Texas alone, the NRA has spent $5 million over the past five years as that state’s legislature expanded gun rights. At the June 2021 signing ceremony for the law that eliminated training and licensing requirements for carrying a handgun in public, NRA leader Wayne LaPierre sat alongside Gov. Greg Abbott (R-TX) as the only non-elected official at the table.

“Thank God, Texas is leading the way for the country,” LaPierre said.

Leading where? Every year since 2020, gun violence has been the leading cause of childhood deaths in America. Recent episodes of mass school shootings include:

October 2022: St. Louis, MO: AR-15-style assault weapon used to kill one student and one teacher; seven other students injured.

June 2022: Uvalde, TX: AR-15 assault weapon used to kill 19 kids and two teachers; 17 others injured.

November 2021: Oxford, MI: Semi-automatic handgun used to kill four kids; seven children and one teacher injured.

May 2018: Santa Fe, TX: Shotgun and handgun used to kill eight students and two substitute teachers; 10 others injured.

Feb 2018: Parkland, FL: AR-15 assault weapon used to kill 14 kids and three adult staff; 17 others injured.

January 2018: Marshall County, KY: Semi-automatic pistol used to kill two kids; 18 other students injured.

The list goes on and on. In 2023, there have already been 16 school shootings in grades K through 12.

But the carnage isn’t limited to kids or schools. Every year since 2020, there have been more than 600 mass shootings in the United States. In 2023, there have been more than 130—so far.

Democracy Thwarted

Mass shootings garner the most attention, but they are the tip of a deadly iceberg. America has five percent of the world’s population and 46 percent of the world’s civilian-owned firearms. We have 120 guns for every 100 people—more per capita than any other nation. Compare that to Canada (34.7), Australia (30), and Norway (28.8).

So it’s not surprising that among developed nations, the U.S. also ranks first in gun homicides per capita (4.12 for every 100,000 people). Compare that to Canada (0.5), Australia (0.18), and Norway (0.07). So far in 2023 alone, guns have been involved in more than 400 children’s deaths and more than 1,100 kids’ injuries.

An overwhelming bipartisan majority of Americans wants solutions that would not compromise anyone’s Second Amendment rights:

90 percent of support universal background checks.

75 percent support a national database for gun sales.

67 percent favor a ban on assault-style weapons.

84 percent favor “red flag” laws preventing firearms sales to dangerous individuals whom a mental health provider has reported to law enforcement.

81 percent favor making private and gun show sales subject to background checks.

77 percent favor requiring all gun owners to use a safe storage unit.

Assault weapons are especially deadly. During a span of only 14 minutes, the Covenant School shooter fired 152 rounds—a bullet every five-and-a half seconds. Two semi-automatic weapons held 30 rounds of ammunition each.

From 1994 to 2004, America had a federal ban on assault weapons, and it helped—a lot, according to some studies. A 2021 analysis found “overwhelming” evidence that the law reduced mass shootings and deaths. Experts agree that the key was banning sales of high-capacity magazines that could hold more than 10 rounds.

But the federal ban expired in 2014. Republicans and the NRA have led the fight against reinstating it.

The Republican “Three-step”

Only a handful of states have enacted significant gun restrictions, but even they remain at the mercy of neighboring states that often have very few. The problem cries out for a national response.

During a three-minute interview on the U.S. Capitol steps immediately following the Nashville shooting, Tennessee’s own Rep. Tim Burchett (R-TN) summarized the GOP’s three-step defending federal paralysis on the issue.

Step 1: Nothing works, so don’t try.

“We’re not gonna fix it,” he said.

Asked whether Congress could do anything about the problem, he continued, “Criminals are going to be criminals.”

When pressed on what Congress can do to protect the nation’s kids, Burchett replied: “I don’t see any real role that we can do other than mess things up.”

Step 2: More religion

“We need to change people’s hearts,” Burchett said. “As a Christian, if we talk about the church, and I’ve said this many times, I really think we really need a revival in this country.”

Step 3: I have mine; go get your own

Asked whether other steps might safeguard children like his own daughter, Burchett said, “Well, we homeschool her.”

That’s his most telling comment. Fend for yourself. Don’t expect a Republican-controlled government to do anything for you or your kids, unless you’re wealthy and want a tax cut.

“The Tennessee Three”

Days after the Covenant School tragedy, thousands of peaceful protesters, including school-age kids and their parents, gathered at the state capitol in Nashville. Exercising their First Amendment rights to speak, assemble, and petition their government, they urged gun restrictions.

Three Democratic state representatives—two young Black men and a white woman—joined them symbolically by walking to the well of the House floor and voicing support for their cause. But Tennessee’s Republican Speaker of the House Cameron Sexton (R) hadn’t given them permission to do so.

Sexton compared them to the January 6th rioters: “What they did… was equivalent, at least equivalent, maybe worse, depending on how you look at it, of doing an insurrection in the Capitol.”

Then he sought the ultimate legislative punishment: expulsion. Not a reprimand. Not censure. Not stripping them of committee assignments. Expulsion—a rare penalty that the House had imposed on only three prior occasions in the last 150 years.

In 1866, it expelled six members after they tried to block the state’s ratification of the 14 th Amendment granting citizenship to former slaves. In 1980, it voted 92-1 to oust a member after his bribery conviction. And in 2016 after months of investigation, it voted 70-2 to expel a lawmaker accused of repeated sexual misconduct.

On April 6, 2023, the expulsion proceedings against the “Tennessee Three” became vivid illustrations of authoritarianism and institutional racism.

State Rep. Andrew Farmer (R) sponsored the expulsion resolution against Justin Pearson (D). It asserted that Pearson’s behavior “reflects adversely upon the integrity and dignity of the House….” But during the hearing on his resolution, Farmer himself did far greater damage to that legislative body.

“Just because you don’t get your way, you can’t come to the well, bring your friends and throw a temper tantrum with an adolescent bullhorn,” Farmer scolded as Pearson stood in the well of the House floor defending himself.

“Now you all heard that,” Pearson responded. “How many of you would want to be spoken to that way?”

Receiving no response, Pearson repeated his question. Again, silence followed.

The Republican supermajority then expelled Pearson, as it had the other Black representative, Justin Jones (D). It deprived 130,000 residents of the state’s largest cities—Nashville and Memphis—of representation. Only one Republican joined Democrats in opposing all three expulsions.

Gloria Johnson (D) retained her seat by a single vote because six additional Republicans supported her. Asked why she was the only survivor, Johnson, who is white, said, “It might have to do with the color of our skin.”

Republicans cherish the right to life, but only until the moment of birth. They value democracy, but only when it suits them. They defend dissent, but only when they are the dissenters.

And they give lip service to the quest for racial justice and equality. But their actions betray their words.

Steven Harper blogs at The Belly of the Beast, is an adjunct professor at Northwestern University, and contributes regularly to The American Lawyer. He is the author of several books, including The Lawyer Bubble — A Profession in Crisis and Crossing Hoffa — A Teamster’s Story (a Chicago Tribune “Best Book of the Year”).

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