1 of 3 | Tennessee state Rep. Justin Jones, D-Nashville, who was expelled after joining a protest on the House floor following a school shooting, said Tuesday that Democrats were being silenced in a special session of the legislature called to address gun violence. File Photo courtesy of Justin Jones/Facebook
Aug. 22 (UPI) -- Tennessee's General Assembly met for a second day Tuesday, with the discussion centering on strict rules for the special session instead of the gun violence it was called to address.
House Speaker Cameron Sexton, R-Crossville, called on law enforcement to bar the public from the Capitol rotunda as lawmakers discussed a controversial set of rules for the week.
Republicans enacted a rule to ban all signs and banners from the gallery after several women attended Monday's session holding signs that said "Covenant Mom for Firearm Safety."
During a House civil justice subcommittee on Tuesday afternoon, Chairman Lowell Russell had state troopers remove several people who had signs, including one woman who was holding up her phone displaying a message.
"This is not what democracy looks like," the woman yelled as she was removed.
Republican Gov. Bill Lee called the special session after the regular legislative session ended with no action on gun policy in the wake of a shooting that killed six people in March at the Covenant School in Nashville.
A few members of the public had been allowed to sit on one side of the gallery, leaving the other side to lobbyists.
"Why are we scared of a sign?" Rep. Justin Pearson, D-Memphis, asked. He accused Sexton of silencing the public and Democrats.
"What is the sign going to do to you and our children? Nothing, because it's not about the sign. Just like some of these rules, it's not about keeping decorum. This is about power. This is the misuse of governmental power and the abuse of power of the minority, the minority power."
Republicans hold a supermajority in the House and Senate with 102 of 132 lawmakers.
It is not the first time Sexton has been accused of silencing political opponents. In April, he led the charge to expel Pearson and Rep. Justin Jones, D-Nashville, for protesting inaction on gun policy from the House floor.
During the hearings on the motion to dismiss them, they said Sexton often ignores bills submitted by Democrats and mutes their microphones.
On Tuesday, Sexton again muted microphones and called "order" on Democrats, particularly Jones and Pearson. During the unfinished business portion of the House session, Jones asked whether he and Pearson would have their committee assignments restored. The two were voted back to the Capitol in special elections after their expulsion.
Sexton quickly called Jones out of order, which the House clerk said Sexton had the authority to do.
The rules adopted by Republicans allow the House to mute a lawmaker and bar them from speaking if Sexton decides they are causing a disruption or if they "impugn the reputation" of other House members. The vague nature of the rule leaves enforcing the rule largely up to Sexton's discretion.
The rule also applies to committees. Bans may be extended to three days.
"We call this the people's house, but today we are keeping the people out of the people's house," Jones said in a video on Twitter. "This does not look like democracy. This looks like extremism and authoritarianism and fascism."
Jones also noted that while signs are not allowed in the Capitol during the special session, guns are.
After the discussion over rules on Tuesday, which lasted about an hour, the House assembly recessed. The first committee meeting, the Senate commerce and labor committee, was called to order, tabled its one bill and adjourned. House committees on education and transportation also met very briefly.
The session is expected to last through the week.
Lee called the session with the intention of proposing several bills to address gun violence. Among them: codification of an executive order to strengthen background checks by firearms dealers; eliminating taxes on firearm safes and other safety devices; providing free gun locks; asking the federal government to match funding for Medicaid for mental health and substance abuse services; and funding to train and retain mental health professionals.
For Lee, a Republican, the Covenant School tragedy hit close to home. He and his wife, Maria, had two friends who were killed in the mass shooting. Three children were also among the dead.