Tennessee firearms group calls Harwell 'pink elephant'

Friday, November 11, 2016, Vol. 40, No. 46

NASHVILLE (AP) - The Tennessee Firearms Association on Tuesday denounced Tennessee's first female House speaker as the "pink elephant in the room," saying Republican Beth Harwell is not aggressive enough on gun rights and should be replaced as the chamber's leader.

Harwell is seeking the Republican nomination for a fourth term as speaker when the House GOP caucus meets on Thursday. She is being challenged by Rep. Jimmy Matlock of Lenoir City. While the vote for speaker won't occur until the General Assembly reconvenes in January, that election should only be a formality as Republicans hold 74 of 99 seats in the lower chamber.

The Tennessee Firearms Association has long criticized Harwell, even though the Legislature has passed several measures loosening firearms restrictions in Tennessee while she has been speaker. They include:

- Allowing faculty and staff to be armed on the campuses of public colleges and universities.

- Keepi ng cities and counties from enacting gun bans in public parks, playgrounds and sports fields.

- Barring employers from prohibiting workers from storing handguns in vehicles parked on company lots.

Tennessee's generally gun friendly lawmakers have been caught between firearms advocates who want to do away with nearly all restrictions on being armed in public and business groups that want to maintain control over their private property.

That friction came to a head in 2012 when John Harris, the Tennessee Firearms Association's president, was roundly criticized for suggesting in a newsletter that it was time to symbolically "display a used crucifix at the entrance to the General Assembly as a warning" to lawmakers with qualms about passing sweeping legislation to loosen gun laws.

During a debate over the guns-in-parking-lots legislation, Harwell urged fellow Republicans to ignore the demands of what she called "fringe" gun groups such as the Tennessee Fir earms Association.

In an emailed newsletter on Tuesday, the state firearms group says Harwell's "establishment Republican perspective" is at odds with "the current trend that the voters have demanded across Tennessee by their overwhelming support of Donald Trump."

"The 'pink elephant' in the room is that Beth Harwell's prior actions as speaker evidence conclusively that it is time for a new speaker in the House," according to the email. "This is not a popularity contest."

Harwell's office did not immediately return a message seeking comment.

About 581,000 people have handgun carry permits in Tennessee. Last year, about 2,300 permits were suspended or revoked, while about 3,300 applications to be able to be armed in public were denied.