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3 Tennessee Democrats face removal from office in Thursday vote after gun control protest

Tennessee State Representative Justin Jones calls on his colleagues to pass gun control legislation from the well of the House Chambers during the legislative session at the State Capitol Thursday, March 30, 2023 in Nashville, Tenn. (George Walker IV /The Tennessean via AP)

(CNN) — The Tennessee House of Representatives is scheduled to vote Thursday on removing from office three Democratic lawmakers who protested on the chamber floor with a bullhorn to call for gun reform following last month’s school shooting in Nashville — and now are accused of breaking House rules.

Three resolutions filed by GOP lawmakers Monday seek to expel Reps. Gloria Johnson of Knoxville, Justin Jones of Nashville and Justin Pearson of Memphis, each of whom has already been removed from their committee assignments following last week’s demonstrations.

The three lawmakers led a protest on the House floor last Thursday, CNN affiliate WSMV reported, using a bullhorn as demonstrators at the state Capitol called on lawmakers to take action to prevent further gun violence after three 9-year-olds and three adults were killed in a mass shooting on March 27 at The Covenant School, a private Christian school.

“It’s morally insane that a week after a mass shooting took six precious lives in my community here in Nashville, my colleagues on the other side of the aisle, their first action is not to take actions to rein in this proliferation of weapons of war in our streets, but it’s to expel their colleagues for standing with our constituents,” Jones told “CNN This Morning” on Wednesday.

“This is not just about losing my job,” he added, saying constituents of the three representatives “are being taken and silenced by a party that is acting like authoritarians.”

This week, Speaker of the House Cameron Sexton, a Republican, said the three Democrats’ actions “are and always will be unacceptable” and broke “several rules of decorum and procedure on the House floor.”

Sexton said peaceful protestors have always been welcomed to the capitol to have their voices heard on any issue, but that the actions of the Democratic lawmakers had detracted from that process.

“In effect, those actions took away the voices of the protestors, the focus on the six victims who lost their lives, and the families who lost their loved ones,” Sexton said in a series of tweets Monday.

“We cannot allow the actions of the three members to distract us from protecting our children. We will get through this together, and it will require talking about all solutions,” Sexton said.

Each of the resolutions says the lawmakers “did knowingly and intentionally bring disorder and dishonor to the House of Representatives,” saying they “began shouting without recognition” and “proceeded to disrupt the proceedings of the House Representatives” for just under an hour Thursday morning.

The resolutions seek to remove the lawmakers from office under Article II, Section 12 of the Tennessee Constitution, which says, in part, the House can set its own rules and “punish its members for disorderly behavior, and, with the concurrence of two-thirds, expel a member.”

Republicans control the Tennessee House of Representatives by a wide margin, with 75 members to Democrats’ 23. One seat is vacant.

The code allows for the appointment of interim members of the House until the seats of the expelled are filled by an election.

On Tuesday, Pearson publicly shared a letter he sent to House members, taking responsibility for “not following decorum” on the House floor while defending his actions.

“My walk to the House floor in a peaceful and civil manner was not an insurrection. I wanted to listen and respond to the voices of Tennesseans who were not given the opportunity to speak in meaningful dialogue with us,” Pearson wrote, according to an image of the letter he shared on Instagram.

“If this House decides to expel me for exercising our sacred first amendment right to help elevate the voices in our community who want to see us act to prevent gun violence, then do as you feel you must,” Pearson wrote.

House Democrats expressed solidarity with Johnson, Jones and Pearson in a statement, while Rep. Sam McKenzie, of the Tennessee Black Caucus of State Legislators, called the move “political retribution.”

“We fundamentally object to any effort to expel members for making their voices heard to end gun violence,” McKenzie said.

The move to expel the lawmakers also drew condemnation from the American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee, whose executive director, Kathy Sinback, called expulsion “an extreme measure” infrequently used, “because its strips voters of representation by the people they elected.”

“Instead of rushing to expel members for expressing their ethical convictions about crucial social issues,” Sinback said, “House leadership should turn to solving the real challenges facing our state.”