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Knoxville Rep. Johnson announces 2024 U.S. Senate campaign one week after ‘disappointing’ special session

Jacqui Sieber

Nearly 100 hundred people gathered in front of Central High School in Knoxville Tuesday morning to hear Rep. Gloria Johnson kick off her 2024 bid for the U.S. Senate. Johnson, a member of the so-called Tennessee three, is focusing her campaign on issues including higher wages, gun control and access to affordable health care. Johnson was a teacher at Central High School when a student was fatally shot in the cafeteria in 2008.

“I'll never forget that day sitting in my classroom preparing my classroom,” Johnson said. “As the kids were in the cafeteria having breakfast before bell, and I heard a lot of screaming … They had just seen one of their classmates, shot in the cafeteria.”

Johnson’s campaign comes as lawmakers adjourned the special session on public safety earlier this week, passing four bills that make minor changes to current state programs, despite calls from the public to pass legislation focused on gun reform.

“It was just heart-wrenching and so disappointing, “ Johnson said in an interview. “And the betrayal of the Tennessee families that expected us to get something done for the people.”

She was referring in part to the families of children killed in the Covenant school shootings in Nashville, many of whom were silenced or asked to leave during the legislative proceedings.

More than 20,000 Tennesseans submitted comments to Gov. Bill Lee’s office before the session. The majority of respondents wanted more gun control restrictions. The public feedback was never raised during the session.

A recent report from the Tennessee Department of Health found firearms were the leading cause of child death from 2017 to 2021.

Why won't they allow us to debate solutions that different people come up with?” Johnson said. “ How come they're so afraid of actually discussing a bill?”

One billeliminates sales tax on firearm safety devices and asks the state to hand out free gun locks. The second billshortens the time frame for courts to report criminal case information to the state, and thethird bill directs the TBI to report human trafficking crimes to the Governor and the legislature. The fourth bill funds the special session and various mental health and school safety initiatives.

School safety was a heavily debated issue during the session. One billthat was tabled by the Senate would have allowed law enforcement to place a school resource officer whether or not a school district approves. Although SROs do decrease some forms of violence, a 2021 studyfound no evidence that they prevent gun-related incidents.

The special session also showed rifts between the two chambers. Tensions rose among lawmakers, particularly when Speaker Cameron Sexton silenced freshman Rep. Justin Jones for allegedly being out of order when discussing a bill that would have allowed more law enforcement in schools.

Rep. Karen Camper argued on behalf of Jones.

“Mr. Speaker, the problem here is that you have the discretion to say what is and is not out of order. The member was trying to make an analogy with respect to the bill … so I didn’t see that as being out of order … I’m just not clear on what part of that was really out of order,” Camper said during the session.

Other lawmakers during the session went off topic, but did not face harsh consequences. Johnson says it’s the House’s attempt to “stifle the debate.”

The Tennessee Firearms Association, a gun rights advocate group, called the special session a victory.

Johnson said she plans to introduce a safe storage lawnext session that is modeled after a bill that passed in Alabama.

Jacqui was born and raised in Pittsburgh. She graduated from the University of Pittsburgh in 2021 with a bachelor’s in communications. Outside of work, she likes to go to baseball games, walk dogs at her local animal shelter, and hike.