NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Hundreds of congregants dressed in white packed into Olive Branch Church for Easter morning service Sunday, but for many, the joyful greetings were followed by anxious chatter over the ouster of state Rep. Justin Jones after he protested gun control measures in the Tennessee House.
The church sits within Jones’ district, and celebrations of the holy day were intertwined with frustration for many of his former constituents, who say he was simply trying to protect them from the accessibility to guns Tennessee law allows.
“It is not OK that we can’t even go to church or go to school or go to get a carton of eggs without worrying about not coming home,” said Angela Hilt, 53, an Olive Branch congregant who voted for Jones. “We elected him to take a stand because he told us: ‘I am going to take a stand for you. I am here to represent you.’ I feel like what he did was an absolute representation of what we the people expected.”
For Hilt, an Army veteran, along with many others, gun control had long been a pressing issue within their community, and the Covenant School shooting, where a former student gunned down six people last month, came as another reminder of the need for commonsense legislation.
Republican legislators voted Thursday to expel Jones, along with Justin J. Pearson, over their protests on the chamber floor, arguing that they had broken the rules of the House. A vote to expel a third Democrat, Rep. Gloria Johnson, fell short.
Jones and Pearson are Black. Johnson is white.
In the March 30 demonstration, the three legislators — dubbed the “Tennessee Three” — had led supporters in calling for stricter gun safety measures after the Covenant School shooting.
Watch: Tennessee Rep. Jones marches to state House after being reinstatedApril 10, 202302:36
Pastor Vincent Windrow, who shepherds Olive Branch, one of the district’s largest churches, said Jones had visited the church in the past and spoken with congregants who, as Windrow was, were thrilled when he took his seat.
“It is the people who voted them [Jones and Pearson] in. They were not appointed by their contemporaries. The people voted them in because of the causes that they spoke up for,” he said.
In his sermon Sunday, Windrow, in a gleaming white robe, spoke about the value and celebration of life.
Windrow said Jones understood his community and the challenges, including gun control.
“A lot of mass shootings have taken place, and those are tragedies, but there are also everyday tragedies because of the lack of gun control,” he said. “People in this church have lost loved ones. People have lost husbands and wives, and there have been innocent bystanders who simply live in a particular part of town and because of the lack of gun control — because I believe the lack of compassion that our politicians can have sometimes towards the common man is disheartening.”
Windrow said Jones was speaking on behalf of his constituents because he understands their fears and struggles.
“It’s just so crucial that people use their platform for the powerless, for those who have no voice, so that their concerns can be spoken to. And if you remove the person who was able to speak to their concerns, then you render those people even more powerless,” he said.
Tennessee has one of the weakest gun laws in the country, and it had the 10th-highest gun death rate and the 19th-highest gun export rate, according to the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence.
The state does not require background checks, gun owner licensing or waiting periods, and it has no red flag laws, among other rules for gun owners.
The state also does not require reporting of lost or stolen firearms, leaving the city with untracked weapons. From 2020 to 2021, there was a 35% increase in guns stolen from vehicles in Nashville, and more than 70% of all guns reported stolen in 2021 were taken from vehicles, according to the Metro Nashville Police Department.
“It’s like the Wild West out there,” congregant Duncan “Chip” Motley, 65, said Sunday. Motley and his wife, Brenda, hosted a campaign event for Jones at their home last year, and he said Jones has always been fighting for gun control.
“That’s who he is. That’s all he talked about. This is not a show,” Motley said.
Brenda Motley, 59, said Jones was fighting for those who elected him.
“We’re not asking to take your guns away, because that’s your right, but have common sense. Put that in place,” she said. “This is what the people want. The everyday hard-working person in our district wants to be secure in their homes and wants to see their children secure in their schools, and they want to feel that they are protected by the lawmakers who we choose to put in office to do those things.
“When they failed to do that, when they tried to shut down someone like Justin who chose to speak up for the people, why are they even there? Not for the people.”
Karlton Davidson, 48, another congregant who voted for Jones, holds a gun license and is taking training classes, said it is possible to have a “positive relationship to the ability to own a gun.”
“We’re not totally against what we see as reasonable measures. What we’re against is not having appropriate measures for the types of gun that you can purchase and the training that you need,” he said.
Davidson said Jones was articulating his point in a well-rounded way that expressed the issue of reasonable gun laws.
He said he is unhappy. He feels his vote didn't count because the candidate he chose, Jones, won but now is no longer representing him.
"It's an embarrassment to our election process and it's unfortunate that it happened this way," he said. “We are going to be negatively impacted by this.”