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VOL. 42 | NO. 5 | Friday, February 2, 2018

A long-shot solution for guns in Cordell Hull

By Sam Stockard

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State Rep. Joe Towns was like a lot of other legislators when he arrived at the renovated Cordell Hull Building for the start of the 2018 legislative session.

The Memphis Democrat knew the Legislature’s top leaders had set policy allowing carry-permit holders to bring weapons into the renovated building, but he wasn’t enthused by any stretch of the imagination. Towns wasn’t happy, either, when he saw Tennessee Highway Patrol security at the new building being supplemented by a private company, Allied Universal.

With both security concerns in mind, Towns is set to sponsor separate pieces of legislation to overturn the gun policy enacted by House Speaker Beth Harwell and Lt. Gov. Randy McNally and to require security be done only by THP’s state troopers at Cordell Hull Building.

“My first concern is you’ve got crazy people out here and all the stuff going on at the White House all the way down,” Towns said, referring in part to what he considers questionable tweets and statements coming from President Trump. “And not only that, you have the (private security) guys that are not trained as good (as troopers). It’s not just them, it’s what’s happening at the national level. You’ve got all this vitriol, all this hate going on and they’re our first line of defense. … Our guys are better trained, they’re our first line of defense.”

After more than two decades in the General Assembly, Towns doesn’t shy away from speaking his mind and calls Harwell, a Republican gubernatorial candidate, a “pilot” who runs the legislative body but doesn’t make laws.

“She ain’t got no business making policy for all us anyway. She’s gonna be gone. She’s making policies for something, and she’ll be gone,” Towns said.

“I don’t care about her policy,” he continued. “I care about the safety of our people, and I think it’s ill-thought-out. She should have asked us about it. Don’t put our (butts) on a shish kabob without asking us. … That’s inconsiderate as far as I’m concerned. The world is too dangerous today.”

Towns said he favors the Second Amendment but argues it’s not the “function” of the House and Senate speakers to set gun policies. Gov. Bill Haslam kept a policy in place this year prohibiting people from bringing guns into the State Capitol.

If gunfire were to break out in the upper floors of the Cordell Hull Building, an eight-story structure between the Capitol and 5th Avenue, most legislators wouldn’t have any option but to run down stairs, he said.

“But if you take out the first front line, the rest of us are sitting ducks. I just don’t trust it. I don’t think it’s a good idea. I’ve been here long enough to have had threats and all kinds of stuff,” he said. “But the fact of it is we’re not on guard for that.”

State troopers and Walden Security personnel are stationed at both doors to the Cordell Hull Building, and a trooper has a booth set up to check people’s gun-carry permits.

A longshot

Speaker Harwell and former Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey considered allowing carry-permit holders to start bringing their weapons at the Legislative Plaza a couple of years ago but opted not to make a change in the gun-free zone because of related expenses. When the Legislature made the move last December to Cordell Hull, she and McNally opted for a change.

Asked about potential legislation, Harwell said in a statement, “Over the last several years the Tennessee General Assembly has expanded the number of places carry-permit holders can carry their firearms. I felt it was hypocritical to impose this in other places while our place of work was a gun-free zone. THP has set up a screening process for carry permit holders, and they are properly securing the building.”

Towns’ proposed bill isn’t likely to find much traction in the House where Republicans have 72 of 99 votes.

Asked about such a measure from Towns, Republican Rep. Andy Holt of Dresden scoffed, saying, “Well, now that I’ve finished laughing there’s no chance that he’s gonna do that. … He’ll bring it, but that doesn’t matter. We can operate in a manner that doesn’t require the Democrats’ input on any specific issue. This may be one of them if he decides to bring this forward. There’s no chance of that happening.”

Holt pointed out the Legislature has managed to survive for several weeks at the Cordell Hull Building without any shootings or accidental discharges.

Security question

In response to Towns’ pending bill about troopers and private security, though, Holt had a different sort of stance.

“I consider THP to be our security here at this complex,” he said.

Towns said he was caught off guard when he arrived at the Cordell Hull Building and found out a private firm would be working security alongside troopers. He was “disheartened,” too, because lawmakers had built relationships with all of the troopers working at the Legislative Plaza over the years.

“We know they are trained at another level,” he said. “They’re capable of protecting our governor and they can protect us too.”

Not only is the Cordell Hull Building completely different from the Legislative Plaza, it has transient and bus traffic on the 5th Avenue side, which could prove problematic, Towns said.

“To err on the side of caution and safety is the right thing to do,” he said.

In response to questions about the security detail, THP Capt. Tommy Fyke said the company’s personnel are prior military, police or security guards and the Allied Universal contract is handled through the Department of General Services and overseen by the Department of Safety and Homeland Security, which is responsible for commissioning the officers.

Officers from the private company are also used in other state-owned and leased buildings.

With the opening of the Cordell Hull Building, the Department of Safety and Homeland Security added four state trooper positions and, because of added security equipment and two entrances, it hired four Facility Protection Officers to supplement the troopers, working at THP’s direction, according to Fyke.

Department of Safety and Homeland Security Commissioner David Purkey and THP Col. Tracy Trott proposed hiring the four new officers to save money and allow more troopers to work on the state’s roads, Fyke said.

Allied Universal bills the state at $25.64 per hour of service, and the Department of General Services gets a bill each month from various departments using the private company through the state contract.

Fyke declined to comment on pending legislation but said, “I do know we are dedicated in providing the highest standard of security possible to secure state facilities, elected officials, visitors and citizens.”

Sam Stockard covers the Legislature for the Nashville Ledger, Memphis Daily News, Knoxville Ledger and Hamilton County Herald. He can be reached at sstockard44@gmail.com.