‘You have imprisoned our democracy’: inside Republicans’ domination of Tennessee

Gun Rights

‘You have imprisoned our democracy’: inside Republicans’ domination of Tennessee

A year after the Covenant school shooting in Nashville – and a mass movement for gun control – Republicans have accelerated their attacks on democratic norms

The murder of six people at a church school in an affluent, largely white enclave of Tennessee’s largest city one year ago sparked a mass protest movement for gun control by Nashville parents. The Republican-dominated legislature met that movement with some spending on school police officers as a gesture to the outrage, a law shielding gun and ammunition manufacturers from liability as a gesture to Tennessee’s powerful gun lobby and the expulsion of the two Black lawmakers as a gesture of warning to people causing too much trouble.

Other antidemocratic displays over the last year would be just as outrageous, if people outside of Tennessee were still paying attention.

The temporary expulsion of Representatives Justin Pearson and Justin Jones was only the first cautionary tale in a saga of retribution that has continued apace, activists say. Conservative domination – maintained by gerrymandered districts, disenfranchised voters and an increasing sense of political despair – insulates Tennessee Republicans from political consequences for unpopular decisions. Challenged in public by increasing activism on the left and apocalyptic rhetoric on the right, Tennessee Republicans stopped just chipping away at democratic norms and began hammering full-on like coalminers on Rocky Top.

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Republicans rode the Tea Party wave of 2010 into a dominant position in Tennessee. Bit by bit over the last 14 years, they have turned Tennessee into a one-party state. About 37% of Tennesseans vote for Democrats in national elections, but Republicans hold a 75-24 supermajority in the Tennessee house and a 27-6 supermajority in the state senate – enough to override a veto and propose constitutional changes. Tennessee fails Princeton’s report card on gerrymandering. Only seven state house seats are considered competitive. No state senate seats are competitive.

The last Democrat to win a statewide office in Tennessee was Governor Phil Bredesen, who left office in January 2011. All five state supreme court justices are Republican appointees.

Only one of Tennessee’s nine members of Congress is a Democrat: Steve Cohen of Memphis. In 2021, Republican legislators cracked Nashville’s longstanding fifth district – held continuously by a Democrat since 1875 – into three pieces. Jim Cooper, one of the last Blue Dog Democrats, was replaced in 2022 by Andy Ogles, a Freedom Caucus Republican who denies that Joe Biden fairly won the 2020 election and was one of 19 lawmakers to initially break against Kevin McCarthy’s speakership in 2023.

Historically, Tennessee Republicans had a tradition of bipartisanship and relative moderation typified by former senators Lamar Alexander or Bob Corker, said Dr Sekou Franklin, a political science professor at Middle Tennessee State University. That’s long gone now.

“The leadership in the state is not the old guard,” Franklin said. “They’re an extreme version of conservatives who believe that they have broad sovereignty to govern, in many respects irrespective of what goes on in the national government.”

Voter disenfranchisement drives some of this political advantage.

About 9.2 % of the adult citizen population (and 21% of Black adults) in Tennessee are barred from voting because of a felony conviction.

Tennessee has one of the strictest and most opaque rights restoration processes, said Blair Bowie, director of the Restore Your Vote initiative at the Campaign Legal Center, a Washington DC-based voting-rights advocacy group. In addition to having to pay all court costs and restitution and being current on child support payments, disenfranchised voters must obtain a certificate of restoration from a probation or parole officer, or a court clerk … if they know how to do it. “There’s no application,” Bowie said. “You end up with a system where even if someone meets the criteria, they couldn’t restore their voting rights because the process is broken.”

The process became even more difficult last year. Now voting rights can only be restored after clemency granted by the governor’s office or citizenship rights restored by a circuit court judge.

Then in January, the Tennessee secretary of state added one new criterion: a judge must also restore a disenfranchised citizen’s right to carry a gun in order to regain the right to vote.


As thousands of people began to descend on the capitol after the Nashville shooting last year, conservative lawmakers really didn’t want to endure another round of rowdy protests. The Republican majority didn’t really want to be there at all, Pearson said.

“The call, or the orders from the governor about what we could do to address the issues of gun violence, was very narrow,” he said, describing a special session called by Tennessee’s governor, Bill Lee, to address criminal justice issues for mental health, public safety and – potentially – a law to take guns away from someone ruled an extreme risk.

So, on day one, Republicans changed the rules.

“You couldn’t have a sign in a committee room. You hear me? A piece of paper is banned,” Pearson said. “You know what you can still have in a committee room? A gun.”

Guns are prohibited in the capitol, but not in the committee buildings where hearings are held, a rule the Republican-led legislature did not change despite the presence of rifle-bearing second amendment activists and far-right Proud Boys confronting gun control supporters on the street.

Outside the capitol, thousands of people, including traditionally Republican voters, attended rallies, said Maryam Abolfazli, a 45-year-old international development executive who founded the civic engagement non-profit Rise and Shine Tennessee after the shootings. Parents were aghast at a legal environment that made it impossible to disarm people with mental illness before they hurt someone.

“Moms came to me to tell me that they’ve never attended anything like this in their life,” she said. “This issue and this moment mobilized people in a way that they had never been mobilized.”

Polling by Vanderbilt University supports Abolfazli’s observations. Three-quarters of poll respondents – including majorities of “Maga” Republicans and NRA members – expressed support for laws requiring the safe storage of guns in vehicles.

At a hearing in August, Tennessee highway patrol officers began dragging out women holding up signs that said “1 KID > ALL THE GUNS” at the order of the civil justice subcommittee chair, Lowell Russell. Abolfazli was one of them.

The ACLU sued on first amendment grounds to block the rules on signs after the event. The parties dismissed the suit as moot after the end of the special session.

The special session ended with laws to speed up background checks and to provide free gun locks. Lawmakers also appropriated $100m in one-time spending for community mental health agencies and other mental health services, and to provide more school resource officers. But “red flag” laws and other gun safety measures were off the table, despite polling, protests and prudence.

The session ended cattywampus, with Pearson and the House speaker, Cameron Sexton, shoving into one another on the floor, a sign in Pearson’s hand: “Protect Kids Not Guns.”

The jostling itself was a sign of things to come.


Rafiah Muhammad–McCormick’s son, Rodney Armstrong, was shot and killed in 2020 in his backyard in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, during a pool party. The murder turned her into a political activist. She wanted to talk with a Republican lawmaker in the halls of the Tennessee legislature last year, she said. It did not go well.

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“I introduced myself as the mother of a gun violence victim. His immediate response was, ‘Well let me stop you right there: the gun did not kill your son.’ I wasn’t even talking on a gun deal. He stopped me immediately to correct me, as a mother who lost her child.”

“I felt like I was punched in the face,” she added. “You’re so adamant about being right that they ignore what you’re saying.”

Getting in front of legislators isn’t hard, she said. Getting them to listen is difficult.

Republicans abandoned the new sign rules at the start of the legislative session in January. Instead, they restricted visitors without tickets from sitting on the side of the house gallery where they can observe Democrats, Pearson said.

Republicans also changed the rules for debate in the house. On paper, it allows for equal time for Republicans and Democrats, but in practice it allow the house speaker to ignore requests to be recognized and for Republicans to end debate as they see fit.

“The speaker does not have to recognize the person whose hand’s raised first,” Pearson said. “He gets to choose whoever he wants. He can choose a Republican who’s going to end the day by calling the question.”

Lawmakers took steps to block courts from reviewing their chamber rules. In February, the house passed a bill to remove jurisdiction from circuit, chancery and other lower state courts over cases involving house and senate rules . If enacted, it would require challenges to rules like the ban on signs to go to the Tennessee supreme court or a federal judge. The bill has, so far, failed to get out of a senate committee.

The Tennessee house also passed a measure in February to make the expulsion of legislators permanent, despite concerns raised by the house legislative attorney that the bill was not constitutional.

Pearson was stopped mid-comment from arguing against the bill. Jones was not permitted to speak about it at all.


In a conversation leaked to the Tennessee Holler of a Tennessee Republican house caucus meeting recorded after the vote to expel the Tennessee Three last year, Republicans framed their opposition in apocalyptic terms.

“Everyone should recognize that the Democrats are not our friends,” said Representative Jason Zachary. “They destroy the republic and the foundation of who we are, or we preserve it. That is the reality of where we are right now, and if these last three days have not proven that, you need to find a new job.”

Other Republicans shared similar sentiments.

“I think the problem I have is if we don’t stick together, if you don’t believe we’re at war for our republic, with all love and respect to you, you need a different job,” said Representative Scott Cepicky in the leaked video. “The left wants Tennessee so bad, because if they get us, the south-east falls, and it’s game over for the republic.”

Those same Republicans are targeting perceived centers of progressive power in the interest of advancing conservative orthodoxy, even when that runs against public sentiment.

Since the Covenant school shooting, Tennessee Republicans have passed laws to fund pro-life “crisis pregnancy centers”, to ban gender-affirming care for minors, to define male and female in state law in a way that makes it impossible to change gender on driver’s licenses or birth certificates, and to bar lawsuits against teachers who do not use a transgender student’s preferred pronouns. Federal courts have blocked new laws restricting drag shows.

Republicans are increasingly targeting municipal government. In the wake of the fatal police beating of Tyre Nichols in 2023, Memphis and other communities created police oversight boards with the power to investigate and punish misconduct. Last week, Lee signed legislation blocking those boards and any local ordinance that limits the ability of a law enforcement agency to take all necessary steps “to prevent and detect crime and apprehend criminal offenders”.

Nashville’s 40-member metro council declined to host the 2024 Republican national convention after Republican lawmakers shattered its congressional district. Republicans responded with legislation to cut the council’s numbers in half, to take over its airport authority and to replace nearly half of the local sports authority with state-appointed members. All these moves have been blocked in court.

Tennessee activists have increasingly focused on local politics, observers say.

“We are seeing folks show up at the school board meetings,” Abolfazli said. Democratic voters will also cross party lines in races they can’t win to keep extremists out of office, she said. “We will pick the more moderate Republican to prevent book banning.”

But at the state level, the net effect of conservative power plays has been to inculcate a sense of despair on the left. This diminishes political activism and voter participation, she said.

“You have so many folks who, whatever they’re being fed about it, think their vote doesn’t count,” Abolfazli said. “Nothing changes. The picture is bleak. You have imprisoned our democracy, and we can’t get the shackles off, because of the gerrymandering, the lobbying and the extremist politics.”

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