Is there room for common-sense gun legislation?

Friday, December 01, 2017, Vol. 41, No. 48

The Tennessee chapter of Moms Demand Action picks its battles judiciously. Once labeled as a bunch of anti-gun extremists, the group is anything but, spokeswoman Kat McRitchie says.

“We seek common ground. We work with legislators on both sides of the aisle. We’re nonpartisan,” McRitchie explains. “We’re simply looking for common-sense gun solutions, which the majority of Americans support.”

With the state Legislature passing more pro-gun laws annually, moving ever closer to “constitutional carry” – the right to pack a gun at all times, except maybe for convicted felons and the legally insane – the organization has no choice but to move with caution.

In fact, it is declining to comment on the decision by House Speaker Beth Harwell and Lt. Gov. Randy McNally to allow carry-permit holders to bring their weapons into the renovated Cordell Hull Building where legislators are setting up new headquarters.

No need to knock a policy approved by Harwell and McNally when they could quash your legislative efforts. The group is still finalizing its agenda for the 2018 session, too, but it plans to build on recent success such as legislation requiring local and state law enforcement agencies to be notified when people with domestic violence orders against them try to buy a gun and fail a background check.

“If that were to expand to other prohibited purchasers, we would be interested in working on that,” McRitchie says.

Formed from Everytown for Gun Safety in America after the Sandy Hook shooting that claimed 26 lives five years ago, Moms Demand Action is gaining numbers. Nearly 80 people joined its advocacy day on Capitol Hill in Nashville last session, McRitchie says, and the group has more than 60,000 active volunteers nationally.

They also are starting to gain more recognition among legislators who might have misunderstood them previously, she points out. They’re also finding common ground with people affected by gun violence, from domestic violence groups, to suicide support organizations and survivors of gun deaths, especially mothers who’ve lost children.

Research by Everytown for Gun Safety found children and toddlers ages 2 to 4 are at the greatest risk for using an unsecured gun, with nearly 300 children 17 and younger obtaining a gun and unintentionally shooting themselves or someone else each year. Nearly 500 more children use guns to kill themselves annually, the group states.

Part of the answer is “responsible gun storage,” and Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America put together a Be SMART gun safety program that encourages parents and gun owners to do things such as secure guns at home and in vehicles, use responsible behavior around guns, check on the presence of unsecured guns in other people’s homes and be aware of teen suicide risks.

Those sound like pretty good rules to follow. Others might call them silly or wimpy, often the same people whose last words are, “It’s not loaded.”

Still other Second Amendment activists say carry-permit holders are the safest gun owners in the world, even safer than law enforcement officers. They very well could be, even though most people know of at least one carry-permit holder who accidentally shot himself or someone while cleaning a weapon or using one.

But those law-abiding permit holders are not in the sights of Moms Demand Action.

Instead, the group is focused mainly on domestic abusers who wield guns to do serious damage.

The ‘boyfriend loophole’

In the wake of the Las Vegas massacre and the Texas church shooting, McRitchie says she believes her group will have a better chance at bending the ear of state lawmakers. And she contends those types of incidents have a common thread: The culprits had a history of domestic violence.

Thus, stronger policy is needed to keep guns out of their hands.

Under federal law, domestic abusers who could fail a background check are defined as those who share children or lived together for a period of time or been married. But basic boyfriends or stalkers wouldn’t be domestic abusers and might not fail a background check.

Finding a solution makes sense to members of Moms Demand Action and the people it talks to each day. The group says it believes it would be more efficient to pass legislation in Congress, but it would work on a statewide bill, too.

“I think it will resonate with legislators here in Tennessee and, hopefully, nationally,” McRitchie says.

On the contrary

While Moms Demand Action backs what it considers common-sense gun legislation, the Tennessee Firearms Association is pushing for the right to carry at any time and any place.

It’s also ready to oppose legislation limiting the use of bump stock devices. Las Vegas killer Stephen Paddock is said to have used the device to speed up his shots when he killed more than 50 people and injured hundreds more this fall. Las Vegas police say he fired more than 1,100 rounds into the crowd.

Even with the National Rifle Association reportedly suggesting federal review of bump stocks, the Tennessee Firearms Association will be lobbying legislators “to defeat restrictions that are prohibited by the 2nd Amendment – particularly those that result from uninformed, emotional responses to mass public shootings which such new ‘laws’ would not have stopped or reduced,” executive director John Harris writes on the association website.

Two Memphis Democrats, Sen. Lee Harris and Rep. Dwayne Thompson, are reportedly prepared to sponsor such legislation in 2018. Thompson is in his first two-year term while Harris is prepared to leave the Legislature after one four-year term and run for the Shelby County mayor’s office.

Whether their bill could be used against them in the general election is a stretch, at best. But the Tennessee Firearms Association is clearly making the matter a political one.

“If you want to make sure that these kinds of laws do not arise in Tennessee, it’s critical to elect known, strong and proven 2nd Amendment advocates in 2018 not only as governor but also to the House and Senate,” John Harris writes.

“There are too many already in office and running for office that would sacrifice your constitutionally protected rights, or ignore them, in the name of ‘perceived’ safety and/or political gain.”

Former state Sen. Mae Beavers would be considered a Tennessee Firearms Association favorite for governor, especially compared to House Speaker Harwell, the bane of the firearms group, even after sanctioning guns in Cordell Hull. Apparently, the fact that troopers will get to check people’s carry permits is sticking in their craw.

The analysis

With Republicans holding supermajorities in the House and Senate and gun restrictions bumping heads with the Second Amendment, gun advocates are usually going to win, especially among rural legislators. Why else would we need to make it legal for people to carry guns in boats, which are always a good solid base for target practice?

And why would private business owners be required to install bigger signs – containing a reference to state law – letting people know guns aren’t allowed inside their establishments?

But with Gov. Bill Haslam, that dratted mainstream Republican, continuing to prohibit people from carrying their weapons into the State Capitol, in contrast to permit holders being allowed to bring their guns to Cordell Hull – maybe they’ll be putting them in a THP cubby when they go up the elevator – Moms Demand Action might have a window to see its impact grow.

The group certainly faces a winding road. Pitfalls will be everywhere in an election year. Still, even country music acts are running away from the gun lobby, and some of the Legislature’s moderate Republicans might be coming around to a different point of view – one that doesn’t require a scope.

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