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VOL. 41 | NO. 45 | Friday, November 10, 2017

Grab a gun, go see your state representative

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When legislative leaders started to allow guns in the Legislative Plaza nearly two years ago, the Sierra Club’s Scott Banbury had his daughter take pictures of him wearing his holstered Ruger and lobbyist ID card to put on lawmakers’ desks with the question: “Is this what you want?”

Even though Banbury considers himself a Second Amendment supporter, having grown up in Arizona, where weapons are prevalent, he isn’t enthused about the new dictate enabling carry permit holders to bring their guns into the Cordell Hull Building where the Legislature is moving to new quarters.

“This is kind of scary, the notion we’re going to have armed individuals in the statehouse,” says Banbury, Memphis-based conservation program coordinator for the Tennessee chapter of the Sierra Club.

Banbury doesn’t always trust the judgment of state lawmakers on more mundane legislative matters, so when it comes to the recent decision by Lt. Gov. Randy McNally and House Speaker Beth Harwell to let permit holders carry in the legislative building, he is more than leery.

He’d rather put the authority of “deadly force” in the hands of the Tennessee Highway Patrol troopers who provide security there. But under the new rules, he’ll have to assume anyone visiting the Cordell Hull Building could be holding a gun.

“I think they’re inviting people to come bearing arms,” he adds.

Banbury recalls the emotions surrounding the income tax debate in the early 2000s when people circled the Capitol and Legislative Plaza in vehicles, some throwing things at the building. He points out people aren’t always rational about legislative matters and worries such a move creates a bad setting for political discourse.

He even raises the point the gun-carry rule could bring a new culture in the General Assembly, one in which people are more worried about comparing pistols to see who has the most firepower. At some point, he says he’ll have no choice but to carry his gun, too.

“It’s just a bad idea,” Banbury explains.

Conversely, Cody Bucher of the Franklin County Libertarian Party, is all for it.

“I think anybody allowed to walk around in public should be able to carry a weapon,” says Bucher, who visits Nashville occasionally to advocate for Libertarian Party issues.

When it comes to weapons, the Libertarian Party takes a wide-open view, one in which it says even the government permitting process goes too far. He backs the “constitutional carry” idea allowing people to carry guns at any time and any place without a permit and contends the U.S. Constitution clearly backs such a provision.

In the days leading up to the move from Legislative Plaza to Cordell Hull, many lobbyists and legislative staff members don’t want to talk about the matter, concerned about their livelihoods and going on the record.

Republican Caucus staffers aren’t worried, saying they’re spending more time packing up. Democratic staffers, for the most part, aren’t exactly thrilled.

Longtime lobbyist Bill Nolan, a self-described liberal who target shoots regularly, says he isn’t afraid the sky is falling and takes a wide view.

“We’ve had people carrying guns in the Plaza as long as I can remember,” recounts Nolan, in his 43rd year as a lobbyist. He won’t publicly mention the name of an East Tennessee politician who, he says, carried regularly at the Legislature.

And though he isn’t extremely concerned one way or the other, Nolan adds he’s somewhat worried Tennessee could be making itself a target.

“You can’t out-firepower bad people,” he says. “You just can’t. … They’re not going to go into a situation where they have less firepower than you do.”

How it started

Harwell and former Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey wanted to allow guns in the Legislative Plaza in 2016 but opted against it because of the expense of changing rules there. With the new Cordell Hull opening, Harwell and McNally indicate they’re only doing what was going to be done two sessions ago.

“Tennessee carry permit holders are among the most law-abiding demographics in our state,” McNally and Harwell say in a joint statement. “To receive a permit, a citizen must be fingerprinted, submit to a background check and receive firearm training. Permit holders wishing to carry their firearms into Cordell Hull will be required to present their permit at security. A thorough screening process will determine the validity of the permit. Once that validity is established, a permit holder will be allowed to exercise their Second Amendment while visiting their state government.”

THP will continue to vet all people who enter the building, screening them at a metal detector. To bring in a gun, they have to show a valid permit and keep the weapon concealed and holstered at all times, says Megan Buell, spokeswoman for the Department of Safety and Homeland Security.

Troopers will have to check those going by elevator from Cordell Hull to the State Capitol since Gov. Bill Haslam isn’t allowing guns there.

“The General Assembly has control over the operations of Cordell Hull,” spokeswoman Jennifer Donnals points out. “The governor’s position regarding the State Capitol has not changed and guns will continue to be prohibited inside the Capitol building.”

Well, that’s just like Haslam, always ruining everyone else’s fun.

Legislative outlook

Rep. Andy Holt isn’t afraid to let him know about it, either.

The Dresden Republican appreciates the Harwell/McNally decision and says he’s proud they took the initiative to extend people’s constitutional rights to Cordell Hull.

“But I was thoroughly disappointed in the governor to again be so resistant when each of the chambers has made a move in this direction. Yet he still is unwilling to even allow people to express and exercise their constitutional rights. I don’t know what the problem is there,” Holt says.

If the matter involved private buildings, Holt acknowledges its owners should have the right to limit access.

“But this is a public building, and for us to deny constitutional rights in a public place, in my opinion, is really just a slap in the face to all Tennesseans,” he adds.

Holt declines to answer when asked if he carries a weapon in Legislative Plaza where they’re prohibited, saying that isn’t a fitting question.

He’s not worried about carry permit holders going ballistic, either, saying they usually don’t express themselves in such “immature and inadequate ways.” He points out the accidental discharge rate among carry permit holders is lower than for law enforcement officers.

And though he admits “anything’s possible,” Holt says the Legislature isn’t in the habit of legislating in the realm of “what-ifs.”

Of course, much of this argument stems from legislation enacted two years ago requiring local governments to allow guns in parks, a move designed to allow people to protect themselves in case they were to be attacked by robbers, perverts and the like, the type of people regularly encountered at the General Assembly.

But forget that a lot of the legislation proposed and passed by the Legislature is sheer nonsense.

If it went to a vote, Republicans would win easily since they have supermajorities in both chambers.

Not surprisingly, Democrats have been most vociferous in opposition.

One of the Legislature’s biggest liberals, Rep. Sherry Jones of Nashville, points out a large number of people who visit the Legislature’s offices are mad about something, and she doesn’t want them coming in angry and armed. She’s told her staffer to shut the door and lock it if she wants to.

“I am not pleased with the decision made by the two speakers to allow guns into the work area that we’ve moving into,” Jones says. “There are children that come up here on tours all the time, and what happens if somebody drops a weapon and it goes off? You never know. I think it’s unreasonable to allow anybody that comes in here to have a gun.”

If you thought the opposition is limited to liberal Democrats, though, think again.

Deputy Speaker Steve McDaniel, one of the most respected Republicans in the House, says he disagrees with the McNally/Harwell decision.

“I don’t think that guns have a place anywhere in the Cordell Hull building or in the state Capitol,” McDaniel says. “My concern is just because you have a handgun carry permit doesn’t say you’re mentally competent all the time, and I fear for the safety of staff and members of the General Assembly and members of the general public.”

Set to leave office in 2018 after 30 years in the House, McDaniel isn’t concerned about upsetting the gun lobby.

Harwell, though, could be trying to bolster her conservative credentials for the Republican gubernatorial primary.

A recent Middle Tennessee State University poll shows she’s in a statistical tie with U.S. Rep. Diane Black among Republican voters, getting 32 percent to Black’s 33 percent. Meanwhile, former state Sen. Mae Beavers, currently a favorite of the gun lobby, is picking up 21 percent in the polling. Harwell could knock off Black in August 2018 if she can capture some of Beavers’ far-right votes.

Final analysis

Political finagling aside, backers of this gun zone say buildings where weapons are allowed are statistically safer than those without. The lieutenant governor’s spokesman provides information showing cities such as Chicago and Washington, D.C., where guns are heavily restricted, have the highest murder rates in the nation. They also contend the murder rate falls as gun ownership increases.

Other studies contradict those theories.

The line of thinking is that people won’t come into Cordell Hull and try to shoot up the place if everyone there is packing. In other words, if someone draws a gun in the Finance, Ways & Means Committee room, he’s going to get blasted before he can pull the trigger. Anyone else hit by stray bullets will be collateral damage.

With that in mind, therefore, yours truly won’t be taking the Chicken Little view. A .44 magnum worked for Dirty Harry. Why not me?

Considering it’s “the most powerful handgun in the world, and would blow your head clean off, you’ve got to ask yourself one question: ‘Do I feel lucky?’ Well, do ya punk?”

Sam Stockard is a Nashville-based reporter covering the Legislature for the Nashville Ledger, Memphis Daily News, Knoxville Ledger and Hamilton County Herald. He can be reached at sstockard44@gmail.com.