Editorial — Tennessee students have right to protest gun violence

At the end of March, three children and three adults were killed in a mass shooting at the Covenant School, a private elementary school in Nashville, Tennessee. The shooter was equipped with three guns, two of which were AR-style. According to The New York Times, the guns were legally obtained by the shooter. 

Exactly one week after the shooting took place, students, parents and advocates from in and around Nashville participated in a March For Our Lives-led rally, calling for the creation of a law to cease all access to automatic and semi-automatic weaponry by Tennesseans. With chants like “You ban books, you ban drag, but kids are still in body bags,” students were also calling for the passage of universal background checks and red flag laws, two measures that, if in existence, would have prevented the Covenant School shooter from legally obtaining guns.

The protestors convened at the state capitol building, where they were met with solidarity by three Democratic lawmakers: Rep. Justin Jones (Nashville), Rep. Justin Pearson (Memphis) and Rep. Gloria Johnson (Knoxville). 

The three representatives, one of whom has been personally affected by gun violence, joined student protestors in the capitol galleries and participated in a variety of chants. At one point, both Jones and Pearson used a megaphone brought by protestors to further amplify their plea for gun control at the front of the House chamber, and also to call out the hypocrisy of Republican lawmakers for claiming to protect children while continuing to let them die for the sake of unregulated gun ownership.

The capitol was filled to the brim with loud protestors after Republican lawmakers did not allow debate on potential gun safety legislation, to the point that House floor proceedings were ultimately halted. This, along with the three representatives’ participation in the protest, led to unjust and undemocratic consequences for the Democratic lawmakers. 

Just three days after the protest, Republican lawmakers voted to expel both Jones and Pearson — two young, black lawmakers — from the Tennessee House of Representatives on the grounds that they violated the rules of conduct and brought “dishonor” to the legislature. Johnson — an older, white woman — was narrowly spared from expulsion by Tennessean lawmakers. 

Although Republican lawmakers claim that race did not play a role in their decision-making process, instead citing the megaphone as their main concern, Johnson told reporters it “might have to do with the color of our skin.”

The attack on the “Tennessee Three” is a great example of reactionary politics, a practice that has increased in popularity within the political realm in the past 10 years. In their justification for expelling these lawmakers, the student protest was frequently compared to the deadly insurrection that occurred at our nation’s capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, by Republican lawmakers. 

This argument is glaringly futile. The Tennessee student protest was peaceful and unarmed, while the Jan. 6 insurrection was the polar opposite. Republican representative Gino Bulso went as far as describing the actions of the Tennessee Three as “mutiny,” a term often associated with revolutions that have the goal of overthrowing established authoritative bodies.

The Jan. 6 insurrection was a blatant display of mass mutiny. A bunch of unarmed students and lawmakers chanting on the House floor is an example of peaceful protest, which is a right guaranteed by the First Amendment. 

This attempt by Republican lawmakers to compare the two demonstrates that they are only willing to fight for the rights of people if and when they support their political ideologies — particularly their precious Second Amendment rights (which calls for militias to be well-regulated, a detail that is often overlooked).

These students were asking for statutory change. Were the protestors agitating lawmakers and using strong language? Yes, because the gun violence epidemic in our country has left them no other choice. Students across the country are begging lawmakers to listen to them, prioritize them and genuinely cherish their existence. 

But they did not enter the Tennessee capitol with malice or violence, as the Jan. 6 insurrectionists did. Those were two different types of protests, with two very different intentions. 

But none of this matters, because we do not have time for reactionary politics. What we want to know is how many children and how many innocent people need to die before this problem is solved. There have already been 14 school shootings in 2023. That is 10 deaths and 14 injuries on school grounds in less than four months. If you are a student at any level of schooling right now, you have every right to be scared and angry about the current climate we live in.

After removing both Jones and Pearson, floor proceedings resumed, and lawmakers discussed how they planned to solve the gun violence issue in their state. Instead of considering any form of gun control, lawmakers instead focused on toughening security measures in schools. This would include the introduction of security guards — who are armed — and the creation of a bill that would allow teachers to carry firearms as well. 

We cannot overemphasize the fact that we do not need more guns in schools. Guns are the leading cause of death for children in the United States, surpassing motor vehicle crashes. By introducing these lethal pieces of machinery into an environment that is considered a safe space or sanctuary for so many, the risk of a gun-related incident is immediately heightened. “Good guys with guns” is not a logical answer to the problem. 

Pearson, who has since been welcomed back to the House as an interim representative, said it best before being expelled:

“Even now, as our own brothers and sisters lay to rest because of the failure of people in positions of power to do something, because people are refusing to pass just laws to end the epidemic of gun violence in the state of Tennessee, my people have yet to quit.”

Editor’s Note: The North Wind is committed to offering a free and open public forum of ideas, publishing a wide range of viewpoints to accurately represent the NMU student body. This is an editorial, written by the North Wind Editorial Board in its entirety. It reflects the majority views of the individuals who make up the editorial staff of the North WindIt is the policy of the Editorial Board not to endorse candidates for any political office, in order to avoid aligning this public forum with particular political organizations.