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VOL. 39 | NO. 14 | Friday, April 3, 2015

What better place for an NRA convention?

Tennesseans love guns, though not quite as much our politicians seem to

By Jeannie Naujeck

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When the National Rifle Association announced that it would hold its 2015 convention in Nashville, the timing was propitious.

In 2010, gun sales and handgun permits were booming, and Tennessee had just enacted a controversial and contested new “guns in bars” law that allowed people with handgun permits to carry concealed firearms into bars and restaurants that serve alcohol.

Now it’s showtime.

Up to 80,000 NRA members will be in Nashville for the April 10-12 conference, the largest yet at the new Music City Center that had just begun construction when the NRA inked the deal.

Unlike Indianapolis, which hosted the NRA convention last year but never announced or publicized it, Nashville officials immediately touted the convention, which will include speakers such as Donald Trump, Sarah Palin and many governors and politicians contending for the Republican presidential nomination.

Since the initial announcement, the number of handgun permit holders in Tennessee has doubled. More than 500,000 state residents currently have a permit to carry a handgun.

And during the current legislative session, some legislators have focused on expanding gun rights, introducing almost 30 bills that would change where, when and how people can carry firearms in city and county parks, on school grounds and at their workplace.

But that gun-rights agenda has its limits, even in Tennessee, which has a Republican supermajority in the General Assembly and a GOP governor.

While five years ago the restaurant industry was unable to stop guns-in-bars legislation, powerful interests such as law enforcement, school and university officials and business groups such as the Tennessee Chamber of Commerce have spoken out this year against legislation that would allow firearms in schools, parks and employee parking lots. In some cases, it has been enough to kill the bills.

Pushback from law enforcement and business groups and public unease over the sight of open weapons have even led some legislators who campaigned on gun rights and have ‘A’ grades from gun lobbyists to hide their “no” votes on open-carry bills from the public record.

“There are always bills introduced by the gun lobby every year, and we really only call it a trend when they’re enacted,” says Allison Anderman, staff attorney for the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, which has given Tennessee an ‘F’ on its gun safety laws.

No permit-less carry

Some of the bills before the Legislature also ran afowl of deeply held conservative principles such as the rights of property owners and local governments to decide what happens on their land.

Even though the legislature passed a bill that prohibits employers from firing workers because they keep a gun locked in their car while at work, strengthening the “guns in trunks” law passed in 2013, it still puts the burden on employees to prove they were fired for the gun and not, say, for stealing Post-It notes.

One of the more controversial bills would have allowed the carrying of a handgun either openly or concealed and without a permit. Tennessee was one of 15 states to have permit-less carry bills introduced this year. Currently, handguns may be carried openly or concealed but only with a permit.

Only four states currently allow permit-less carry everywhere – Alaska, Arizona, Wyoming and Vermont, which has been a permit-less carry state since its founding. Montana allows permit-less carry outside of cities.

Kansas will soon become the fifth state to allow permit-less concealed carry everywhere after lawmakers passed a bill and sent it to Gov. Sam Brownback, who is likely to sign it.

“Most states allow open carry by default, meaning that they don’t regulate it and that’s because it’s never been an issue until recently,” Anderman explains. “People did not just walk around crowded city streets openly carrying firearms.

“What is more likely to happen is that states are going to start outlawing open carry because carry activists are demonstrating the dangers in not actually regulating open carry.”

That’s what has happened in states such as California, which passed a law in 2011 prohibiting open carry after activists began carrying firearms in public, scaring the public. In some cases, the NRA has called such demonstrations counterproductive.

Wild, Wild West?

Leroy Farris, range master and instructor at Nashville Armory, an indoor gun range and retail and training facility, says people shouldn’t carry guns openly for defensive purposes. If a violent incident were to occur in a public place, the person showing their gun could be the first one taken down, he says.

Geoff Guthrie shoots a Sig Sauer P226 handgun at the Nashville Armory Indoor Range.

-- Michelle Morrow | The Ledger

“It might be that they would try to harm the person with a gun first because they might see them as the greatest threat. If everyone had guns, and they were all concealed, it might end up a different story. There is a time to let people know that you have the gun.”

Other bills that effectively died in the session include a bill that would have allowed guns to be stored in vehicles on school campuses. That would have allowed students to store firearms in their cars on college campuses as long as they did not “handle” them.

It would also cover instances such as a parent who carried a firearm in their vehicle but had to enter school grounds to pick up a child. The bill was opposed by University of Tennessee officials who said they work with university employees covered by the “guns in trunks” legislation passed in 2013 and did not want to extend the issue to students.

Only the “guns in trunks” and “guns in parks” bill had smooth passage through the legislature.

Tennessee legislators moved a step closer to removing the ability of city and county governments to decide whether guns can be carried in parks when the House passed on Tuesday a bill that would override local bans and the Senate followed Wednesday, upping the ante by also allowing guns on Capitol Hill.

The law has an effective date of April 6, three days before NRA members arrive for their convention.

It would allow people with handgun permits to legally carry their guns in Davidson County parks. Nashville Mayor Karl Dean has spoken out against the bill.

Some House members voted “present” without registering a “yes” or “no,” with House Speaker Beth Harwell indicating that while her constituents were not in favor of the bill, she did not want to vote against her party’s position.

While Gov. Bill Haslam opposes the bill, any veto would likely be overridden.

“They always say, “It’s going to be the Wild West, shoot-‘em-ups whenever expansion is proposed,” notes John Harris, a Nashville attorney and executive director of the Tennessee Firearms Association, who was disappointed by the lack of action on gun rights.

“But that didn’t happen after the “guns in bars” bill.”

David Randolph Smith, the Nashville attorney who filed litigation against the “guns in bars” law in 2009 on behalf of local restaurateur Randy Rayburn, points to last month’s second-degree murder conviction of Nashville bar owner Chris Ferrell for shooting and killing country singer Wayne Mills following an argument on the bar’s premises.

“It’s kind of died down, but there have been shootings in and on premises of places that serve alcohol,” Smith explains.

“If I were going to do a look back at what happened, years later, no, it hasn’t turned into the Wild West, but it certainly hasn’t been entirely safe either,” he says.

State murders down

In fact, most violent crimes have been on a marked downward trend in Tennessee. While handgun permits have doubled in the last five years to more than 503,000 valid permit-holders today (Tennessee Department of Safety), murders in the state have fallen to the lowest point recorded this century.

In 2013, the most recent year for which the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation has an annual published report, Tennessee had 333 reported murders, down from 409 in 2012, 384 in 2011 and 360 in 2010.

Of the 2013 murders, 233 of them, or 70 percent of the total, were committed with firearms. Of the firearms used to commit the murder, 160 of them (69 percent) were handguns.

In 2010, the year in which reported violent crimes fell to the lowest point of the previous decade, there were 360 murders, 228 of them (63 percent of total) involving firearms. Of the firearms used to commit the murder, 152 of them (67 percent of total) were handguns.

Handguns became a slightly more popular firearm with which to commit a murder, but in 2013, murders were still 8 percent below the previous decade’s low.

Pro-gun rights groups frustrated

The lack of action on gun-rights expansion frustrates Harris, who says some legislators who ran on a pro-gun platform have failed to deliver votes, saying one thing and doing another for political expediency.

He points to videos posted online in which Rep. Jim Coley, R-Bartlett, is clearly seen and heard voting “no” against two gun-rights expansion bills during a meeting of the six-person House civil justice subcommittee that he chairs. Rep. Jon Lundberg, R-Bristol, also voted no, joining two Democrats who also voted no. Two other Republicans voted “yes” on the legislation.

Later, both Coley and Lundberg changed their votes to “Present Not Voting” so the General Assembly record would not show a “no” vote.

“The bill died as a result of the abstentions – two nos, two yeses, and two abstentions,” Coley later told a reporter on camera. “I changed to an abstention, as did Lundberg.”

Asked why they had not supported the bills – one that would have allowed people to transport and store firearms in cars on school property, and HB 684, the open carry legislation that had 25 GOP co-sponsors – Coley replied, “Basically not to show that we were not in favor of the firearms … Jon and I are very strongly in favor of firearms, it’s just that the right to carry ought to carry with it a permit.”

“He said he didn’t want his constituents to know that he voted no on a gun bill,” Harris explains. “You’ve got leadership in the Republican party that makes promises that they are good on guns, that they support the Second Amendment, that they believe in your right to own guns … and then they break their promises.”

He says Gov. Bill Haslam has also failed to show leadership on pro-gun legislation. While mayor of Knoxville, Haslam was a member of Michael Bloomberg’s Mayors Against Illegal Guns group.

He left the group and joined the NRA before running for governor but hasn’t supported gun rights expansion this session. Harris suggests Haslam has modified his positions with an eye to a future in national politics.

What polls show

Smith counters that politicians are simply reading the writing on the wall.

A 2013 poll by the Middle Tennessee State University Survey Group found that 85 percent of Tennesseans supported background checks for those who purchase firearms through private sales or at gun shows.

More residents than not supported a ban on assault-style weapons, and more were opposed to arming teachers and school officials.

However, 58 percent thought handgun permit holders should be allowed to store guns in their cars parked at work.

And residents were statistically evenly divided when asked whether they generally opposed or supported stricter gun laws, including the ban of high-capacity ammunition magazines, bucking a national trend toward support of toughening gun laws.

Haslam’s moderate stance on issues like gun rights might have even earned him support. In February, MTSU released a new poll that showed the governor’s approval rating zooming up 17 points, to a new high of 64 percent, between 2014 and 2015.

“Maybe they changed their position because they had something called enlightenment, or they looked at statistics or facts,” Smith says.

“John Harris is an intelligent lawyer, but he’s a zealot for the Second Amendment and wants to push the envelope far beyond what anyone intended. We have a gun violence problem that is unfathomable. All you have to do is Google it, and you will find incidents every day.”

Indeed, a cursory online search of news reports from last week alone brought up a number of incidents involving guns – some voluntary, others unintentional.

  • A former police officer in Lenoir City shot his wife during an argument.
  • An Alcoa teen shot and critically wounded another teen after mistaking a semiautomatic pistol for a BB gun.
  • An 11-year-old Nashville boy was injured during a gunfight involving at least 20 shots fired.
  • One person died and four others were injured in a shooting near the Austin Peay campus in Clarksville.
  • And a semiautomatic rifle was stolen from a police officer’s car parked in his driveway in Hendersonville; officials said they hoped it would not be used for unlawful purposes.

In the western part of the state:

  • A Jackson man shot and killed his ex-girlfriend and himself at the bank where she worked.
  • In Memphis, a man brought a loaded pistol and ammunition into St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital and threatened the mother of a child being treated there.
  • Also in Memphis, a Kroger employee was shot and killed at work by her husband, who then killed himself.
  • Outside the state, a 2-year-old in Georgia shot herself in the abdomen accidentally with her father’s gun.
  • And in Florida, a 6-year-old and a 13-year-old died after the older boy got a gun and shot two brothers and himself after a quarrel over food.

“There’s a big responsibility with gun ownership,” says Farris, a longtime firearms instructor who advocates locking up guns in homes with children.

“Some people are better at being responsible than others. We can train anyone, but it doesn’t mean the person will follow the training and do what training suggests.

“We are still human beings and we make choices. And sometimes people make bad choices even though they’ve had good training.”

A safer state …

Some organizations think the state could do more to protect citizens from poor choices.

Tennessee did get an “F” on the 2014 scorecard compiled by the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence. The organization cited a number of state policies:

  • Not requiring background checks for sales of firearms between private parties
  • Not prohibiting the transfer or possession of assault weapons or large capacity ammunition magazines
  • Not limiting the number of firearms that can be purchased at one time
  • Prohibiting schools from asking if students/their families have guns at home
  • Allowing employees to store firearms in their vehicles while at work.

Tennessee also has a strong pre-emption law, denying local governments or political subdivisions to regulate firearms, Anderman says.

However, the Center gave Tennessee points in several areas for:

  • Requiring gun dealers to conduct background checks on those who purchase firearms, allowing up to 15 days for the information to come back.
  • Requiring courts to submit mental health adjudication records to the FBI for use in background checks.
  • Prohibiting abusers in domestic violence cases from purchasing or possessing firearms
  • Requiring abusers to surrender their firearms for the duration of any orders of protection against them.

Harris says he could find common ground with his liberal counterparts in the area of addressing guns and mental illness, although he feels a diagnosis of temporary situational depression should not preclude one from ever getting a permit.

In Smith’s ideal world, handguns would be banned, permits would be required for every other type of firearm and criminal penalties would double for unauthorized use.

“Guns here, there and everywhere … if that’s your idea of Utopia I suggest you read some George Orwell,” Smith notes.

“If (gun activists) think the answer is for everybody to be armed, I would just say that’s not the civil society I envisioned. I’m a lefty, I guess, on this one. But I know I’m losing the battle.”

Others feel there’s room for compromise, that gun rights activists could concede more on safety issues, and people who flat-out oppose guns could take the time to learn more about them.

Deidre Riegel Sayko, 44, of Nashville, says that when she first started shooting for sport and self-defense a decade ago, she also became interested in Second Amendment activism.

But Sayko says she eventually dropped her NRA membership because of the group’s stance on what she thinks are reasonable safety measures, such as “smart gun” technology and stricter licensing requirements.

“I do find the NRA unreasonable and I understand why: It’s an imperfect analogy, but they are not going to compromise on gun rights any more than a civil rights organization is going to compromise on civil rights,” she explains.

“But there are so many things that could be done to guns to keep them safer for people who own them, and for people who don’t like them.

“I am no longer a person who doesn’t allow for any wiggle room.”

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