By MARC H. MORIAL
National Urban League
“We won’t be bent, we won’t be bowed, and we won’t be ordered to ignore the hearts and minds of the people who elected us, demanding commonsense gun safety in a state that has nearly none. The GOP of the Tennessee House of Representatives attempted to obstruct me and my colleagues from these goals and to shred our democracy. Instead, Republicans have only fanned the flames of hope that illuminate our movement, helping it to grow more powerful and glow more brightly.”
– Tennessee State Rep. Justin J. Pearson
The crowd of more than 1,000 that gathered at Tennessee’s Capitol to demand safer gun policies was mostly White. The three 9-year-old children and two of the three staff members who died in the mass shooting that inspired the protest were White.
The group of legislators who stood at the House podium with a bullhorn to lead protestors in the galleries was multiracial.
Only the Black legislators were expelled.
The Tennessee lawmakers who voted to expel House members Justin Jones and Justin Pearson while sparing Gloria Johnson shifted focus away from the outcry against gun violence – which cuts across every demographic – toward their own appalling racism.
In the eyes of the nation, when the House convened on the morning April 6, the Tennessee Three were facing expulsion because they protested gun violence. When it adjourned that evening, the Justins had been expelled because they are Black.
The reality is that racial resentment and gun extremism are inexplicably linked.
Racial resentment is a “statistically significant” predictor of White resistance to gun safety policies, research shows. Yet those same “racially resentful” Americans are less likely to support “gun rights” if they believe Black people are exercising those rights more than they are.
Despite the reality that a gun in the household offers almost no protection against assailants, doubles the risk of death by violent homicide and triples the risk of death by violent suicide, the vast majority of gun owners cite “protection” as their reason for owning one.
Clearly, for many White gun owners “protection” means “protection from Black people.”
The high rate of gun ownership in the South, even today, can be traced to the backlash against Reconstruction. The higher the rates of historical enslavement in a county, the higher the rates of contemporary gun ownership.
Nearly half of Southerners live in a household with at least one gun, compared to 28% of Northeasterners. Six of the 10 states with the highest rates of gun violence – including Tennessee – are in the South.
Tennessee has the tenth-highest rate of gun violence in the nation and ranks 29th on the strength of its gun safety policies. Just eight days after the massacre at Covenant School, the state’s Senate Judiciary Committee voted to defer action on any gun-related legislation until next year.
While the anti-gun safety supermajority in Tennessee’s legislature’s may continue to block common-sense policies for some time to come, their effort to silence the outcry against gun violence clearly has failed. Not only have both Justins been reappointed to the House, but they also return as national heroes.
The Nashville Metropolitan Council unanimously voted to reappoint Jones to his seat on Monday, and the Shelby County Board of Commissioners returned Pearson to the House on Wednesday.
“Today we are sending a resounding message that democracy will not be killed in the comfort of silence,” Jones said after the vote. “Today we send a clear message to Speaker Cameron Sexton that the people will not allow his crimes against democracy to happen without challenge.”
In contrast to the legislature’s stubborn refusal to address gun violence, Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee has issued an executive order strengthening background checks for gun purchases and called for a red flag law that would temporarily remove guns from dangerous people.
Lee and his wife, Maria, were longtime friends of two of those who lost their lives at Covenant School: substitute teacher Cynthia Peak and headmistress Katherine Koontz. Peak was expected at the governor’s mansion for dinner with Maria Lee on the day of the shooting.
It should not take a personal connection to the victims of a massacre to move a public servant to take a stand against gun violence. But now that Lee has taken the first step, he must continue the journey and the legislature should follow.
Marc H. Morial, former mayor of New Orleans, is president and CEO of the National Urban League. He can be reached through https://nul.org.