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VOL. 39 | NO. 12 | Friday, March 20, 2015

Legislators misfire in rush to impress NRA attendees

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With the National Rifle Association bringing 75,000 people to Nashville for its April 10-12 convention, the timing is seemingly right for the General Assembly to impress by passing a bevy of gun bills.

But so far this session, passing firearms-related legislation has been like putting the wrong size bullets in a pistol. Even if it fires the first time, it’s probably going to jam on the second round.

That’s despite Republican supermajorities in the House and Senate, which would seemingly prove more fertile ground for wide-open gun laws.

Rep. Micah Van Huss’s measure allowing people to openly carry guns without a handgun carry permit failed recently on a House subcommittee voice vote.

Van Huss, a Jonesborough Republican, contends Tennessee’s gun laws infringe on Second Amendment rights and people need the “open carry” law “to protect themselves from evil folks.”

House Civil Justice Subcommittee members, however, were uncomfortable with the possibility of turning Tennessee into the Wild, Wild West. The number of Tennessee’s handgun permits recently hit the 500,000 mark.

“This is just a terrible thing to do, to strap it on and take out your big sword that we gave everybody last year,” says Rep. Sherry Jones, a Nashville Democrat. “And you’ll have your sword strapped to your back and your guns strapped on your hips and we’ll be ready to go.

“It’ll be just like the Old West. And the Old West didn’t work, and we’re supposed to learn from previous actions.”

Rep. Bill Beck, another Nashville Democrat, argues Nashville reported a 50-year low for homicides last year.

“Walk out on the street, there’s nobody carrying guns,” he says. “We had fewer homicides than in 1962, so how is open carry going to make us safer in this city?”

Even though Van Huss points out nearly 30 states in the country have open-carry laws, including six around Tennessee, Beck contends the law hurt Georgia’s tourism industry and would do the same to Tennessee.

The committee also nixed a bill allowing gun dealers to sell to permit holders without checking their background, in addition to a measure permitting people to carry guns on property used by schools, but not owned by them.

Governor weighs in

Gov. Bill Haslam, meanwhile, is glad to welcome tens of thousands of gun enthusiasts for their annual NRA gathering, but he doesn’t want it affecting legislation.

“I don’t think long-term policy should ever be driven by short-term need,” he says. “People should decide is this good policy for the state or not.”

The Republican governor isn’t too fired up, either, about a bill dubbed “constitutional carry” allowing people to go armed without a conceal-carry permit as long as they aren’t prohibited otherwise from carrying a gun.

The measure is sponsored in the House by Rep. Rick Womick, a Rockvale Republican.

“We’ve passed a lot of laws in this state that were based on the fact that the people that had firearms with them had permits and had gone through the education process,” Haslam says.

“So if you look at what’s happened with, whether it be guns in bars, guns in parks, all the different iterations we’ve had, they’ve all been based – and the arguments have been made – on the fact these folks have been permitted and been through that process.”

Womick, however, says the Second Amendment gives Tennesseans the right to carry a gun in the state without a permit.

“The Supreme Court upheld the fact that citizens are not required to have any kind of permit to carry a gun anywhere they want to with exceptions of schools and that kind of thing,” Womick adds.

Womick’s legislation would allow a person “not otherwise prohibited from possessing a firearm” by state law to “possess a firearm either openly or concealed.”

Those prohibited would include people with criminal backgrounds including felony and domestic violence convictions, those younger than 21, non-U.S. citizens, fugitives, the mentally ill, people subject to court orders of protection and those convicted of DUI twice or more in the last decade.

But Womick isn’t completely ready to get rid of the state’s conceal-carry permitting and says he plans to amend the bill to require gun merchants and gun owners who sell weapons to provide pamphlets with information on where to get training for a conceal-carry permit.

Tennessee requires people carrying concealed weapons on their body or in their car to get a conceal-carry permit. People don’t need permits to have guns in their own homes and businesses.

A bill sponsored by Sen. Joe Hensley, R-Hohenwald, would revisit the guns-in-parks hoopla of last year when it passed in the Senate and failed in the House.

“I really think our permit system is kind of backwards. If you’re carrying gun, you probably wouldn’t need a permit as much as having it concealed,” Hensley says. “I just believe in the Second Amendment. People should be able to defend themselves.”

As for the right of city councils and county commissions to set their own rules, Hensley says a uniform system is needed across the state. On this issue, the decision should be left up to the state, not local governments, he contends.

Gov. Haslam doesn’t concur.

“My concern has been all along, from the point of us, as the state, telling cities and counties what they can do with the parks they own. My concern about this has always come from a ‘whose property is it’ standpoint as opposed to a Second Amendment question,” Haslam says.

Based on the governor’s views, Republicans are a long way from united on gun issues. While some appear to want everyone carrying every minute of the day, others believe there is a time and a place for weapons.

Even the NRA reminds people on its website that, when the convention comes to Nashville, lawfully carried firearms will be permitted in the Music City Center but Bridgestone Arena, where Jeff Foxworthy and Alan Jackson concerts are scheduled, doesn’t allow guns.

It notes: “When carrying your firearm, remember to follow all federal, state and local laws.”

Sam Stockard can be reached at sstockard44@gmail.com.

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