U.S. Senator Ben Cardin

Letters From Ben

April 8, 2023

More Bullhorns, Fewer Bullets

Dear Fellow Marylanders,

On March 27, three 9-year-olds were gunned down inside their Nashville school, along with a substitute teacher, a school custodian and the head of school. By most accounts, this was the 130th mass shooting in the U.S. this year. In total, 65 children in this country have been killed by guns this year and another 149 injured.

The sheer number of gun violence victims has been on the rise and it is astounding. As of yesterday – April 7, the 98th day of the year – we had reached 141 mass shootings this year alone. Then there are the daily shootings, intentional and unintentional, leaving 11,129 dead so far.

It’s no wonder the German Ministry of Foreign Affairs warns travelers to the United States that “it is easy to obtain guns in the United States, leading to increased use of guns and occasional killing sprees. The number of arms and ammunition purchases has increased significantly during the COVID-19 crisis.”

Too many children have died in this country because the wrong place at the wrong time was their classroom. I have been heartened to see thousands of Tennesseans rally peacefully in Nashville at the state capitol urging their elected state representatives to do something. Many of the protesters were students frightened that gun violence would find their school next.

This was democracy in action. Citizens were peacefully petitioning their elected officials to take action to avoid future tragedies.

Let me insert here a reminder that I served as Speaker of the Maryland House of Delegates. I understand the mechanics of floor procedure and the sometimes-fierce debates that can take place on any given issue. I also would not have wanted anyone from another state telling us how we should run our Maryland legislature. 

That said, what happened in Nashville, after three of the members of their state House of Representatives, Democratic Reps. Justin Pearson (Memphis), Justin Jones (Nashville) and Gloria Johnson (Knoxville), voiced their support for the protesters and the need for the Tennessee legislature to consider some kind of gun safety measures has national implications and cannot be ignored.

What happened in Nashville after these elected officials heard their constituents and tried to spur some kind of response from their colleague? The Republican supermajority expelled two of the three lawmakers from the legislative body for purportedly breaking decorum rules – they walked onto the floor and began speaking without being recognized. According to the Tennessean newspaper, Republican Rep. Andrew Farmer said Rep. Pearson was expelled for throwing a “temper tantrum with an adolescent bullhorn.”

Tennessee House Minority Leader Karen Camper, described the situation differently, saying, “Rep. Jones represents thousands of people in this state whose voices have been silenced time and time and time again … We had just had this mass shooting, and he only wanted to elevate the voices of those people. For a simple rule violation, we have elevated this to the highest level of admonishment. That’s not democracy.”     

I agree that we have rules for a reason. The rule of law is what keeps our system of government functioning. But when those rules are applied differently to different individuals, allowing serious crimes to go unpunished while minor infractions elicit the most extreme punishment, the system begins to degrade, losing its resilience and legitimacy. We’ve seen this cancer at the federal level and now we are seeing it aggressively spreading at the state level, too.   

If you thought this was only about partisan politics and/or gun safety, it is important to note that Reps. Pearson and Jones, who were expelled, are young Black men in their 20s. Rep. Johnson, who was spared by one vote, is an older white woman. When asked why she was not ejected, Johnson was clear: “it might have to do with the color of our skin.”

Rather than embrace the responsibility of responding constructively in some legislative way to the worst school shooting in Tennessee history, Republican lawmakers chose to lash out at their colleagues and disenfranchise voters. These actions are not simply a partisan power grab, but a threat to the basic conventions of our representative democracy.

The world is watching and the scene is not pretty. Former Reps. Pearson and Jones may have an opportunity to serve in the legislature again, by appointment or re-election, but the breach that has been opened will not heal easily. Around the nation, elected officials must work hard to ensure that the undemocratic actions taken by Tennessee legislature do not become the norm. Civil political discourse and peaceful demonstrations should be the standard for leaders and citizens alike.

We need more bullhorns and fewer bullets.

Thank you for your time. Please feel free to reply to this email with your thoughts on this or any other topic.

Happy Passover, Happy Easter and a Blessed Ramadan to all those who celebrate.


Ben Cardin