House Speaker equates Nashville’s peaceful protests against gun violence with Jan. 6 insurrection

Sexton went on a new talk program on 98.7 FM, saying Thursday’s protests were “maybe worse” than election deniers’ 2021 attack on the Capitol in D.C.

By: and - March 31, 2023 1:30 pm

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to better reflect Sexton’s comments.

The top Republican in Tennessee’s House called Thursday’s protests over gun violence at the Tennessee Capitol an “insurrection,” drawing comparisons to the storming of the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. 

House Speaker Cameron Sexton, R-Crossville, made the comments during an appearance on the Hal Show on 98.7 FM

“Two of the members, Reps. (Justin) Jones and (Gloria) Johnson, have been very vocal about Jan. 6 in Washington, D.C., about what that was,” Sexton said. “What they did today was at least equivalent, maybe worse, depending on how you look at it, of doing an insurrection in the capitol.”

House Democratic leaders on Friday said Sexton is trying to “change the narrative” and demanded Republicans issue an apology for referring to parents and children who went to the Capitol as “insurrectionists.”

Reps. Justin Jones, right, Justin Pearson, bottom, and Gloria Johnson, left, bring a megaphone onto the Tennessee House floor on March 30, 2023. (Photo: John Partipilo)
Reps. Justin Jones, right, Justin Pearson, bottom, and Gloria Johnson, left, bring a megaphone onto the Tennessee House floor on March 30, 2023. (Photo: John Partipilo)

More than a thousand people, including many teenagers, showed up to the Tennessee Capitol calling for lawmakers to address gun violence after six people were killed — including three children — in a mass shooting at the Covenant School in Nashville

Protesters started their rally in front of the State Capitol at War Memorial Plaza at 8 a.m. They then proceeded to the statehouse shortly afterward, entering in an orderly manner and passing through a security point operated by Tennessee State Troopers. 

The demonstrations in Nashville on Thursday were not violent, and the Tennessee Department of Safety and Homeland Security said no arrests were made, no use of force incidents were reported and no property was damaged.

After debate about a bill on school vouchers, Reps. Jones, D-Nashville, Johnson, R-Knoxville, and Justin Pearson, D-Memphis, took to the speaking podium in the House, using a megaphone to lead chants with a crowd that gathered in the public viewing area. 

A 45-minute recess was called, during which Democratic leaders told the three to stop and huddled with Republican leaders on what actions to take next. 

Republicans speculated the trio was trying to get expelled from the House floor. Democratic leaders described what they did as “good trouble” when speaking to the media afterward. 

After the disruption, the House gaveled back in and continued as if nothing had happened, although some disagreements surfaced. 


Sexton told reporters the three legislators would face consequences, including stripping them of committee assignments or possible expulsion from the state House.

Rep. John Ray Clemmons, chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, pointed out many schools let students out to join in the rally for stricter gun laws after the Covenant shooting incident.

Democratic leaders called the actions of three Democratic lawmakers who used a bullhorn to lead chants with the crowd “good trouble,” using the words of the late U.S. Rep. John Lewis, and Rep. John Ray Clemmons pointed out many schools let students out to join the rally.

Referring to the protests as the “equivalent or maybe worse” than the Jan. 6 Washington, D.C. insurrection “is a blatant lie, and it’s offensive,” Clemmons said in a news conference. “You show me the broken windows. You show me anyone who went into the speaker’s office and put their (feet) up on his desk and trashed his office. You show me where a noose was hanging anywhere on the legislative plaza. You show me any violence that was done by anybody here speaking their mind and sharing their perspective and standing up for their children.”

State Rep. Bo Mitchell, D-Nashville, took personal offense to Sexton’s statements, saying the speaker should also apologize to Mitchell’s wife and children, who visited the statehouse to join the demonstration. 

He argued that the only person who could have been injured was a teen put in a “chokehold” by a state trooper.

Protesters were eventually banned from the Senate and House viewing areas after they disrupted proceedings with chants of “shame on you” and “children are dead, and you don’t care.”

Mitchell contends the House balconies shouldn’t have been cleared, regardless.

Video shows troopers pushing protesters to a clear path to bathroom

During the protest, state troopers attempted to keep clear paths between the House chamber, Senate chamber, elevators, bathrooms and exits. 

Video of Thursday’s protest showed state troopers pushing through protesters to allow Rep. Paul Sherrell, R-Sparta, to exit a bathroom. The troopers appeared to move three young individuals locking arms to block the exit. Sherrell can be seen holding onto troopers as they surround him, escorting him back to the House chamber. 

Clemmons refused to disclose the discussions he had with Sexton and other Republican leaders on the House outdoor balcony. But he said he still has “serious concerns” that no actions have been taken against Sherrell for making statements about lynching three weeks ago. Sherrell made a forced apology on the House floor two days after he suggested “hanging by a tree” be added to legislation renewing firing squads as a method of capital punishment.

By about 1 p.m. Thursday, most protesters had left the Capitol, with only a dozen or so left as the House wrapped up its session by 1:45 p.m.

Anita Wadhwani contributed to this report.

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Adam Friedman
Adam Friedman

Adam Friedman is a reporter with the Tennessee Lookout. He has a particular love for data and using numbers to explain all kinds of topics. If you have a story idea, he'd love to hear it. Email him at [email protected] or call him at 615-249-8509.

Sam Stockard
Sam Stockard

Sam Stockard is a veteran Tennessee reporter and editor, having written for the Daily News Journal in Murfreesboro, where he served as lead editor when the paper won an award for being the state's best Sunday newspaper two years in a row. He has led the Capitol Hill bureau for The Daily Memphian. His awards include Best Single Editorial from the Tennessee Press Association.