When I was growing up in Tennessee, the state’s politics were–as was often said of Howard Baker, the centrist Senator who embodied them–like its namesake river: right down the middle. That era is long-vanished, as this week’s expulsion of two Democratic lawmakers from their seats made abundantly clear. But there was a glimmer of it a few days earlier when in the wake of the horrific school massacre in Nashville, two former governors of opposite parties joined forces to lay out a path for gun reform.
In an op-ed in The Tennessean, Democrat Phil Bredesen and Republican Bill Haslam, who served as governor successively from 2003 to 2019, offered some specifics around “small step” gun restrictions as starting points. But their central premise is that listening and compromise are key parts of leadership, and that it’s unacceptable to sit on our hands in the face of near-constant mass murder.
In somewhere other than 2023 America, this would not have been news. But the two, who also host a bipartisan podcast together, are saying some things that somehow seem to be points of dispute. Namely, that America’s gun-violence epidemic, unmatched in the rest of the world, is out of control and that, as Haslam put it to me when I reached out to the former governors earlier this week, “the first step in anything is admitting you have a problem.”
The op-ed circulated widely. “Trying to do anything we can to prevent the deaths of children, teachers and other staff should be bipartisan,” tweeted one reader. “Appreciate Haslam and Bredesen coauthoring this.”
But common sense, having peaked out of its burrow, saw its shadow and quickly crawled back in. With the ink on The Tennessean op-ed barely dry, the governors’ minimalist call to action got drowned out by an act of partisan vengeance that went national. The GOP supermajority in the Tennessee legislature set out to expel three House Democrats who had peacefully (if noisily) interrupted its proceedings as part of the Nashville protests demanding action on guns. Supporters of the targeted legislators reeled off examples of historic and appalling transgressions that had resulted in lesser or no action, but on Thursday, the House expelled two of the three representatives, Justin Jones and Justin Pearson. The vote on a third, Gloria Johnson, failed by only one vote.
The Bredesen/Haslam effort reminded me of one of the most important projects we’ve done in my tenure as editor of TIME. In 2018, working with the artist JR, we gathered together 245 individuals from across the gun divide in America–including political figures from Gabby Giffords to Steve Scalise, hunters and NRA members, gun-control advocates and trauma doctors who treat gunshot victims–for a cover portrait and a series of conversations. What drew me to that project was the hope that we could think differently, create a space that gathered people instead of expelling them, based on a hope that reason could triumph over rage.
I asked the former governors how small steps are possible if one side kicks the other side out of the building before the conversation starts. Haslam, a sometime Trump critic, stuck to the both-sides script, blaming “the reflexive move to our partisan corners that never solves any problem” and cited the expulsions as “an example of why a different approach is needed.”
Bredesen was more critical of the expulsions. “One of the things you do as a grown up,” he said, citing a time when he had protestors occupying his office while he was governor, “is to figure out once in a while when you let some of that stuff pass.” But he retains some optimism: “I mean, it’s sort of outrageous,” he said, but “I’m a believer that things change. Once in a while, the planets line up in some way that you can get something to happen.”
There has been some preliminary discussion of the so-called red flag laws endorsed by Bredesen and Haslam that allow law enforcement to take firearms from people with known risks of harming themselves or others. But for now, the likelihood of planetary alignment on even small steps to tighten up Tennessee’s gun rules, some of the loosest in the country, seems low. What brought about last year’s federal compromise on guns after the horrors of Uvalde, the first real movement at the national level in nearly three decades, was leaders who sounded the call and a recognition that inaction is not only a moral but a political loser. Those ingredients are pretty clearly missing in Tennessee right now.
Haslam and Bredesen insist they’ll keep at it. “Neither of us has any power in the government today. We’re just two citizens who have a little bit of a platform,” says Bredesen. “But I’ve just got great faith in the common sense of the country to work our way through it.”
Felsenthal is the Executive Chairman and former Editor in Chief of TIME