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After yet another mass shooting made headlines recently — this time, at a bank in Louisville, Kentucky — the chief medical officer for University of Louisville Health gained national attention as he shared his emotional thoughts on the regular toll gun violence takes. As Dr. Jason Smith spoke at a press conference to give an update on the victims’ conditions, he said: “For 15 years, I’ve cared for victims of violence and gunshot wounds. And people say, ‘I’m tired,’ but it’s more than tired. I’m weary. There’s only so many times you can walk into a room and tell someone, ‘They’re not coming home tomorrow.’ And it just breaks your heart when you hear someone screaming ‘Mommy,’ or ‘Daddy.’ It just becomes too hard day in and day out to be able to do that. My team is fantastic. They’re absolute professionals. They’re wonderful. But sooner or later, it catches up to everybody. You just can’t keep doing what we’re doing. … You can’t keep seeing all the people with these horrific injuries coming through the door without doing something to try and help. And I don’t know what the answer is. I’m a doctor. I don’t know what the answer is. But to everyone who helps make policy, both state and federal, I would simply ask you to do something. Because doing nothing, which is what we’ve been doing, is not working.”
Dr. Smith’s voice is one more in the overwhelming chorus urging elected leaders to do something to stem our national gun violence epidemic. In Tennessee, where three 9-year-olds and three adults were killed at the Covenant School on March 27, that cry became a roar as thousands of people, many of them high school and college students, descended on the state capitol in Nashville to demand lawmakers protect children instead of guns. The whole nation watched what happened next to three members of the state’s House of Representatives who were willing to listen. Reps. Gloria Johnson, Justin Jones and Justin Pearson stood with their constituents — and were quickly attacked by Republican peers in the state legislature, who then voted to expel Reps. Jones and Pearson from their elected positions.
When Rep. Johnson was asked why she thought she survived the expulsion vote but Reps. Jones and Pearson did not, she was candid: “Well, I think it’s pretty clear. I’m a 60-year-old white woman and they are two young Black men.” The same forces that stripped two young Black male legislators from elected office for standing up to entrenched power structures, standing with their voters, and standing against gun violence have been at work in Tennessee and across our nation for a very long time. But those forces have not had the last word.
The councils in Rep. Jones’ and Rep. Pearson’s districts who were asked to appoint temporary replacements for their positions both unanimously nominated Reps. Jones and Pearson to fill their own vacant seats. Both men were sworn in again this week, and both also plan to run again in the required special elections to fill them permanently. Rev. Janet Wolf, a longtime Children’s Defense Fund colleague, ally, and friend in Tennessee, was on the streets during the protests, inside the gallery during the votes to strip Reps. Jones and Pearson from office, and there to witness their return. As she sat through the attacks on the three representatives, she recognized the votes as part of continued attempts to undermine the power of voters in Knoxville, Memphis and Nashville. But in the protests and their aftermath she also felt hope.
Rev. Wolf saw firsthand how the young people surging on the state’s capitol represented an incredibly diverse range of backgrounds and local public and private schools, and could sense how the coalition in the streets marked a turning point. As one young woman told her, “I feel like I’m living history.” Rev. Wolf says for her and others in Tennessee who were young during the civil rights movement, seeing this generation ready to change things was a profound moment: “It was beautiful to see all of these young people and remember what it was like to feel that change was just around the corner — and to feel hopeful that systemic change is not only possible, it is happening.”
When Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee signed an executive order on Tuesday strengthening background checks for gun buyers and asked state lawmakers to do even more, it was just one sign that calls for change were being heard. The young people and politicians and their supporters who are calling for more have no intention of giving up. They are committed to doing something, and their struggle should give all of us hope.
Edelman is founder and president emerita of the Children’s Defense Fund.