A sign rests on the desk of Rep. Gloria Johnson, D-Knoxville, in the Tennessee House chamber as proceedings were brought to expel her from the legislature Thursday, April 6, 2023. In an extraordinary act of political retaliation, Tennessee Republicans on Thursday expelled Rep. Justin Jones, a Democratic lawmaker from the state Legislature for his role in a protest that called for more gun control in the aftermath of a deadly school shooting in Nashville. Rep. Gloria Johnson narrowly avoided being removed. (AP Photo/George Walker IV)

People Are Dying, but Tennessee Lawmakers Worry About “Decorum”

This newsletter contains frank discussion of mass shootings.

The summer before my freshman year of high school, 12 people were shot and killed and 70 others injured in a movie theater two states east of where I lived. A few months later, 20 elementary school students and six adults were killed approximately 2,700 miles away from where I navigated the first semester of ninth grade. 

One year later, a shooting just eight miles away from where I attended tenth grade left one teacher dead. This teacher was the softball coach of an acquaintance. 

Four years later, while I was out of the country on a study abroad program, 60 people were murdered and more than 800 injured by a man who locked himself in a hotel room above a country music festival. The shooter owned a house just three miles away from where my mom lived and bought his guns at the Cabela’s where I used to grimace at taxidermied bighorn sheep hung on its walls. 

At the beginning of 2012 – the first year I realized public spaces weren’t as safe as they should be (since then, this feeling has never gone away) – these shootings dotting the timeline of my childhood still felt distant, not applicable to me. But it seemed that every new one got closer and closer to home.

Like many young people who came of age in the 2010s, it feels like my adolescence was shaped by gun violence, even though I was never a direct victim of it myself. Since the Aurora, Colorado, shooting in 2012, I have never entered a movie theater without noting where the emergency exits are. When I was still a student, every day I stepped foot on a school campus I thought about what I would do in the event of a shooting. Crawl under a desk, fake dead. Hope the bullet doesn’t land. What else is there to do?

As of this morning, April 11, 2023, the last school shooting in the United States happened 16 days ago. The last mass shooting happened 24 hours ago. Every single day in this country, incidents of gun violence occur. Guns outnumber Americans by about 60 million. 

Correctly or not, rural identity is often linked to gun culture. It’s a complex relationship nuanced by things like wilderness safety and hunting for food and sport, but the data is striking. According to a 2021 survey conducted by Pew Research Center, 41% of rural people own a firearm, compared to 29% of people living in suburbs and 20% of people in cities. Approximately half of all gun owners say most or all of their friends also own guns, according to Pew. 

Guns can kill people, and rural America is suffering for it. Rural areas have significantly higher rates of gun violence than urban and suburban areas. Between 2016 and 2020, 13 of the 20 counties with the highest rates of gun homicides were rural, according to the Center for American Progress. In 2020, the total rural gun death rate was 40% higher than in large metropolitan areas.

The school shooting 16 days ago happened in Nashville, Tennessee – not a rural area. But it brings into question, once again, this country’s lax gun legislation, an issue that crosses rural and urban divides. 

Three students and three adults were murdered in Nashville. But instead of addressing this tragedy, Tennessee legislators chose to persecute three House representatives who led a protest in the State Capitol calling for tighter gun control.

Tennessee House Republicans voted to expel the three legislators who led the protests, citing “lack of decorum.” They successfully expelled two of them: Justin J. Pearson and Justin Jones, the youngest representatives and two of only a few Black legislators in the Tennessee House. The other representative, Gloria Johnson, avoided expulsion by a single vote. Predictably, both racism and agism played a part in this decision – Johnson herself said, in a CNN interview about what happened, “I think it’s pretty clear, I’m a 60-year-old white woman, and they are two young, Black men.” 

The House’s panic over decorum obscured the reason Pearson, Jones, and Johnson were protesting: six people were murdered in Tennessee and no government action is being taken to prevent this from happening again. Three children won’t see their tenth birthdays, three school staff members won’t see their students grow older. Is “decorum”  the problem?

Their deaths add to the growing list of people killed in an increasing number of mass shootings: since 2012, there have been 87 mass shootings in the United States where three or more people died, according to data compiled by Mother Jones. In the 29 years prior to 2012, there were a total of 54 mass shootings. 

This is a new problem, but some policymakers already view it as a lost cause. Even when the data says otherwise. A 2022 poll showed that 71% of Americans think gun laws should be stricter, including approximately half of all Republicans and almost all Democrats. Stricter gun laws don’t mean taking away people’s lawfully-owned guns; they mean universal background checks and gun purchase bans for violent offenders (to name just a couple examples). 

Even though the majority of Americans support gun control, Republicans are still hesitant to make any substantive change surrounding guns. But a shift may be coming. 

Hundreds of thousands of people in this country, young and old, are marching and protesting and insisting on change. And some lawmakers like Tennessee’s Justin J. Pearson, and Justin Jones, and Gloria Johnson are actually listening, and acting, on the will of the people. Even though two of them were thrown out of the House for doing this, the outrage their expulsion caused across the country has been too strong for even Tennessee’s Republican supermajority to hold back the wave. 

Yesterday, Jones was reinstated in the House by a vote from the Nashville Metropolitan Council. The same may happen to Pearson tomorrow after a vote from the Shelby County Board of Commissioners. 

“You might try and silence it,” said Pearson on the steps of the Tennessee State Capitol on Monday. “You might try and expel it, but the people’s power will not be stopped.”

My generation grew up with rampant gun violence. It could well be the generation that stops it.

Rural Reading List

Commentary – To My Rural Tennessee Neighbors: You Are Not Alone

For another perspective, read Rural Assembly director Whitney Kimball Coe’s piece about what it’s been like, as a rural Tennessean, to deal with the Nashville shooting and the political upheaval that followed.

Rural Voters Shift Democratic in Wisconsin Supreme Court Election

Last week, Democrat Janet Protasiewicz won Wisconsin’s Supreme Court race, due in part to rural voters. The election hinged on abortion access and redistricting, perhaps a “bellwether on how abortion rights might play in other elections.”

Lack of Access to Infrastructure Hurts Voter Participation in Rural America

Even as rural voters show up in some rural areas, turnout is still low in comparison to urban voters, and experts point to a lack of civic infrastructure as the cause. 

A North Carolina Democrat Left the Party — and Shifted the Balance of Power

Tricia Cotham, a state representative in North Carolina, switched from the Democratic to Republican party last week, giving Republicans the supermajority needed to override vetoes from the state’s Democratic governor.

One More Thing: Medication Abortion Access

The future of mifepristone – a widely used drug that ends pregnancy up to 10 weeks when taken in tandem with the drug misoprostol – is threatened by a ruling last week from a federal judge in Texas who issued a preliminary injunction to suspend the federal approval of the drug. 

Mifepristone is used by about half of all people who decide to have an abortion. The ruling would further limit the options of pregnant people living in states that have implemented strict abortion bans since the overturn of Roe v. Wade last June. Abortion medication is available by mail even in the strictest states, and is fundamental in providing abortion access for rural people whether their state allows abortion procedures or not. 
Yesterday in a federal appeals court, the Justice Department asked the court to suspend the ruling, which would go in effect this Friday, to allow the case more time to go through an appeals process.

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