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September 14, 2009

Few Volunteers for NRA Agenda

In recent months, the National Rifle Association (NRA) has been pushing state legislatures across the country to legalize the carrying of concealed handguns in sensitive public places—an agenda that hasn’t sat well with the public itself. One key battleground concerning such legislation has been the state of Tennessee.

A new law in Tennessee that went into effect on September 1, SB 1518, allows concealed carry permit holders to take their handguns into parks, natural areas, campgrounds and “similar public places.” Cities and counties are allowed to opt out of the law by passing local legislation, however, and maintain their concealed handgun bans in parks. Approximately 70 municipalities have already exercised this option; ranging from major cities Memphis and Nashville to rural towns with populations under 2,000. Vice Mayor Steve Brown said of his city: "Hendersonville is a fairly conservative community, and I'm a fairly conservative alderman. Four of our aldermen have carry permits—I'm one of them—and all four of us opted out of that law." When told that the sponsor of SB 1518, Sen. Mae Beavers (R-Mt. Juliet), was considering offering new legislation to take away the opt-out provision for local governments, Brown said, "If you make a law that 70 percent of your people don't like, you'd be pretty foolish to bring it up again in an election year. I wouldn't touch that law with a 10-foot pole."

Recently, some Knoxville officials who expressed support for the ban have received threatening emails from concealed carry permit holders. Knoxville City Councilwoman Barbara Pelot received approximately 400 such emails, and said, "It made me think strongly about what kind of training do these permit holders have? ... These people don't have psychological testing. They don't go through what Knoxville Police Department officers and the Sheriff's Office do. The passion and the intensity of these e-mails made me think some very bad choices could be made by these people who have permits."

Another law that went into effect in Tennessee this year, SB 0575, allows “[any] person who has [a] handgun carry permit and is not consuming alcohol to possess [a] handgun in any restaurant that derives more than 60 percent of its revenue from the sale of food .” Tennessee does not differentiate between restaurants and night clubs for liquor licensing purposes, making the Volunteer State the first in the country to allow concealed handguns in bars (Arizona recently became the second). No mechanism has been specified to enforce the law—presumably restaurant owners would have to search everyone they serve alcohol to to see if they are carrying a firearm.

In July, a group of 10 Tennessee restaurant owners and workers filed a lawsuit which alleges that SB 0575 “creates unsafe workplaces, [and] violates federal occupational safety and health laws.” Adam Dread, attorney for the plaintiffs and an NRA member, stated, “How hard is it to have a common-sense awareness that guns and alcohol don’t mix? It’s a deadly mix. Two guys with fists, you have a fistfight. But if one has a gun, you have a tragedy.” The Tennessee Hospitality Association, Nashville Chamber of Commerce, and Nashville Visitors and Convention Bureau are supporting the lawsuit.

Proponents of the law, such as SB 0575 sponsor Sen. Doug Jackson (D-Centerville), claim that concealed carry permit holders are well-vetted and among the most responsible gun owners in America. Several recent developments, however, call these claims into question.

In late 2008, the Tennessee Department of Safety discovered that approximately 200 individuals who held concealed carry permits in the state had active restraining orders against them for domestic abuse. Although this was a clear violation of the law (subjects of restraining orders are prohibited under federal law from possessing or purchasing firearms), the Department of Safety did not notice this oversight until informed by a Nashville television station.

Then, in August of this year, the Tennessean discovered “a persistent group of Tennesseans with violent pasts who carry gun permits through loopholes, administrative mistakes, and the realities of a court system where charges based on violent incidents can be reduced or eliminated in plea bargains.” This group included convicted felons who illegally held permits and others who obtained their permits in accordance with the law despite long criminal histories. As a “shall-issue” state, Tennessee does not give local law enforcement any discretion over whether to issue a permit. If an applicant passes a basic computer background check, police must issue the permit, even if the individual is an obvious threat to public safety. "The circumstances of the cases…brought to our attention can certainly lead one to reasonably question the judgment and character of these individuals, and whether they should have permits to carry guns in public, including bars and restaurants," Nashville Metro Police Chief Ronal Serpas said in a statement. "But again, the law is the law."

In an even more recent incident that occurred in Knoxville on September 3, Luann Keller, 55, was charged with aggravated assault after she allegedly pulled her gun on an off-duty police lieutenant. Authorities say the incident may have been the result of road rage. “She started blowing her horn and then pulled up beside him and pulled a firearm,” says Knoxville Police Department Lt. Kenny Miller. Keller had a valid permit to carry a concealed handgun.

The NRA insists that allowing concealed handguns to be carried everywhere will make us safer. Opposition to their legislation in a “Red State” like Tennessee—hardly a liberal bastion—is convincing evidence that few Americans agree with them.

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