Tennessee House speaker’s likening of protest over gun laws to Jan. 6 assault on US Capitol draws fire

Staff Photo by Andy Sher / Students, parents and others demonstrate at the state Capitol for new gun restrictions on Thursday, following the shooting deaths of three children and staffers earlier this week at The Covenant School in Nashville.
Staff Photo by Andy Sher / Students, parents and others demonstrate at the state Capitol for new gun restrictions on Thursday, following the shooting deaths of three children and staffers earlier this week at The Covenant School in Nashville.

NASHVILLE -- Tennessee Republican Speaker Cameron Sexton's comparison Friday of last week's House floor demonstration by two lawmakers over state gun laws in the wake of a deadly Nashville elementary school shooting as "at least equivalent, maybe worse" than the Jan. 6 attack at the U.S. Capitol has Democratic lawmakers furious.

"That is a blatant lie and it's offensive," House Democratic Caucus Chairman John Ray Clemmons of Nashville said to reporters Friday at a hastily called news conference, hours after Sexton made the comments on Knoxville's The Hal Show program on FM 98.7. Sexton is from Crossville, Tennessee.

A day earlier on Thursday, an estimated 1,000 students, parents and others, galvanized by the shooting deaths, crammed House and Senate galleries. After being removed by state troopers, they re-grouped and filled the hallway outside the chambers, continuing to chant slogans and urging lawmakers to curb state gun laws.

The actions came following the March 27 assault on The Covenant School, a private Christian school for preschool through grade six students. Three 9-year-olds and three adult staffers died in the attack, which Nashville police say was carried out by Audrey Hale, a 28-year-old who had attended the school and was under care for an emotional disorder.

Police say Hale was in possession of an AR-15 military-style rifle, a pistol-caliber carbine and a 9 mm Smith & Wesson. Hale was shot dead by responding police. Tennessee Republican leaders are now debating what safety actions to take but also what punishments they will have for three Democratic lawmakers who, during a floor recess, went to the House podium with bullhorns and led students, parents and other attendees in the then-packed House gallery in chants such as "Gun control now!"

"Two of the members, Reps. (Justin) Jones and (Gloria) Johnson, have been very vocal about Jan. 6 in Washington, D.C., about what that was," Sexton told talk show host Halloran Hill. "What they did today was at least equivalent, maybe worse, depending on how you look at it, of doing an insurrection in the capitol."

State lawmakers at the time were debating a bill expanding the state's school voucher program when the chamber erupted in havoc. That began when Jones, a freshman longtime community activist and organizer, complained to Sexton his microphone had been turned off. Sexton called him out of order, declared a five-minute recess and summoned Republicans to the dais to consult.

Jones; Johnson, a Knoxville Democrat and teacher; and another freshman and social activist, Justin Pearson, D-Memphis, then marched to the podium with a megaphone and led attendees in the balcony in chants.

"You show me the broken windows," Clemmons told reporters Friday, comparing Thursday's events to the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol. "You show me anyone who went into the speaker's office and put their chair upon his desk and trashed his office. You show me where a noose was hanging anywhere on the Legislative Plaza. You show me any violence that was done by anybody here speaking their mind and sharing their perspective and standing up for their children."

The Tennessee Department of Safety, which sent Highway Patrol officers to the Capitol's second floor to maintain order, said no arrests were made.

On Friday, Sexton accused Jones, Johnson and Pearson of trying to "incite" violence.

"We had protesters that had been vocal about things ... and were out in front of chambers being very vocal and yelling and screaming, which we're used to," Sexton told Hill. "And (Jones, Johnson and Pearson) took at one point during session to come up out of order and tried to take over the House floor, start pulling out a megaphone and shouting at members to incite riot or violence.

"You had people outside the chamber who rushed the state troopers to try to get inside the chamber. They weren't successful," Sexton added. "Now we have multiple violations by those three. You had consequences for those three. They're protesting guns and shootings, saying they don't have a voice, which is ridiculous because they talk on almost every bill anyway."

Video of the protest outside the chamber shows state troopers pushing through protesters to allow Rep. Paul Sherrell, R-Sparta, to leave a bathroom. The video indicates the troopers were trying to move three young demonstrators who tried to block the exit.

Sexton said he and fellow Republicans Gov. Bill Lee and Senate Speaker Randy McNally of Oak Ridge are also looking at actions taken by other states, among them Florida, where 17 students in 2018 were killed and 17 others wounded or otherwise injured by a former student in Parkland, a suburban town near Miami.

"Everything's on the table, so it's anything from enhanced security, moving into mental health and treatment options," Sexton said. "People have talked about red flag laws, which are meaningless if you don't have treatment for that as well."

The speaker stopped short of endorsing any specific proposal.

Sexton said he continues to weigh what actions he will take regarding Jones, Johnson and Pearson. That could be removing the lawmakers from House committees, which Sexton noted he can do himself. Another option could be official censure, which would take a majority vote. A third option is expulsion from the House. The latter would take a two-thirds majority vote.

The chamber's 73 Republican representatives account for about three fourths of the House's 99 members.

According to Encyclopedia Britannica, 140 police officers were criminally assaulted by the rioters in the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, which came as Congress was certifying Democrat Joe Biden's victory over then-President Donald Trump in the 2022 election.

Among the officers, one died of a series of strokes and two later committed suicide. Others were left with severe injuries.

One rioter was shot and killed by police, another died of a heart attack and a third was apparently crushed by the mob. Dozens of people were injured, and some 900 people were later charged, including a Cleveland, Tennessee, man who faces trial in May on charges of assault, resisting or impeding certain officers; obstruction of an official proceeding; and entering and remaining in a restricted building or grounds with a deadly or dangerous weapon.

Tennessee state income tax battle spurred new security

Twenty-two years ago in 2001, Tennessee's three-year battle over a proposed state income tax climaxed in a sometimes violent protest as hundreds of protesters came into the Capitol chanting "No new taxes." State troopers locked the Capitol after about 200 people banged on the doors of the Senate chamber, broke office windows and accosted lawmakers as they made their way through hallways with police escorts.

One demonstrator outside the Capitol hurled a rock through the window of then-Gov. Don Sundquist's office. The governor was not there at the time. The income tax proposal never passed. 

The episode led to changes at the Capitol complex. Those changes included troopers being stationed at entrances and the installation of metal detection devices at both Legislative Plaza, which at the time was home to lawmakers' offices and committee rooms, and now the lawmakers' current home in the Cordell Hull Building. The same security measures are in place at the Capitol.

Other changes included locking doors leading to the ground floor as well as the first and second floors of the Capitol.

Among legislative opponents back in 2001 was then-state Sen. Marsha Blackburn, a conservative Brentwood Republican who later was elected to Congress and then the U.S. Senate where she continues to serve.

The Commercial Appeal later reported that Blackburn had emailed her secretary to notify conservative talk radio show hosts that "WE NEED TROOPS" at the Capitol.

Blackburn later told the newspaper she had no regrets "about letting people know" that income tax discussions had resurfaced, noting that when running for office she said, "I will vote against back-room deal making" and her actions were part of that commitment.

The future U.S. senator added that she did think there were a couple of instances during the protest that were "unfortunate."

But I do not think it was a mob, and I don't think it should be described as a mob scene," she said.

Last week, Rep. Bo Mitchell, D-Nashville, joined Caucus Chairman Clemmons in speaking to reporters.

"The most offensive thing I saw yesterday was state troopers clearing out children from the gallery. So they couldn't watch their state government work," Mitchell said.

"That was beyond me, sending the state troopers onto children," Mitchell continued. "That's not going to happen next week. If that's their plan, they can get that plan out of their head. You know, they need to prepare for large crowds.

"Large crowds are coming because a lot of mothers and fathers and children are tired of seeing children buried in this country. And the latest children to be buried, unfortunately, are in our state," Mitchell added. "We're sick of it. It's time to act. Tired of their thoughts and prayers. We don't need 'em. We don't want 'em."

Contact Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com or 615-285-9480.

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