Tuesday, November 19, 2002

Barrage of bills would relax gun laws
Front Page Story - Local News - Pages 1-2

Staff Writer

Gun enthusiasts with a permit to carry a concealed weapon want to be allowed to carry their firearms into family restaurants, bars and other places that sell alcoholic beverages as long as they aren't drinking.

They also want the legislature to remove the prohibition that keeps them from carrying a handgun on school grounds and in public parks.

They also want to be allowed to carry loaded rifles and shotguns in the gun racks of their pickup trucks and they want the conceal-and-carry permit to allow them to have police-type batons in their possession.

Those changes are in a series of proposed bills that would relax weapons standards for 130,000 Tennesseans who have received permits since the conceal-and-carry permit program began in 1994. The bills, all sponsored by state Rep. Ben West Jr., D-Hermitage, and backed by the Tennessee Firearms Association, were discussed last week by the House Judiciary Committee, which was reviewing them in an interim study session. The committee took no action because the legislation will have to be reintroduced when the legislature convenes in January.

West maintains that many laws pertaining to guns need to be revisited.

''Many of the existing laws predate the civilian handgun carry statute and have not been revised or reviewed with a view toward revising those statutes to reflect the growing number of civilian handgun permit holders in Tennessee,'' he said.

West said the threat of further terrorist attacks and the election of more gun-friendly lawmakers this year enhanced the bills' chances of passage.

''It appears the election brought some more NRA (National Rifle Association) and TFA (Tennessee Firearms Association) friends up to the Hill and got rid of some who were not friends,'' West said.

State Rep. Henri Brooks, D-Memphis, and Jaunita Veasy, head of the Black Children's Institute of Tennessee, are among those opposed to weakening gun laws.

''When you have guns around alcohol, it is an incident waiting to happen,'' Brooks said.

The Tennessee Attorneys General Conference, which represents the state's prosecutors, has not taken a position on the legislation, said Wally Kirby, its executive director.

Currently, anyone can transport a handgun in a vehicle if the weapon is unloaded and the ammunition is kept separate, said Beth Tucker Womack of the state Safety Department, which runs the conceal-and-carry program, but ''kept separate'' is not clearly defined.

''You can't have your gun in the back seat and your bullets in your pocket,'' Womack said.

''You can have your gun behind the seat and the bullets in the glove box.''

A handgun permit holder can transport a loaded handgun in a vehicle legally, she said.

Rifles and shotguns are regulated by the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency.

TWRA's assistant chief of law enforcement, Steve Nifong, said that transporting a loaded rifle or shotgun did not violate any of the agency's regulations, with two exceptions: If the weapons are in a vehicle on a wildlife management area or a public hunting area, they cannot be loaded and must be in a gun case.

West said the law needed to be changed because ''citizens are leaving their handguns unattended in vehicles in public parking areas because they believe they cannot carry the handgun into certain structures.''

''Citizens are leaving their handguns at home because they are going to a location where handguns are prohibited on the premises, which includes the public parking lots of such facilities.''

West also wants to make confidential the information about who has been given conceal-and-carry permits.

Rep. Brooks said making such changes to the gun laws ''is just going to open us up to be a wild, wild West state.''

''For the life of me, I can't understand how this will help anyone carrying around guns where alcohol beverages are sold, near school grounds, loaded guns riding down the highway. It is opening ourselves up to more violence in Tennessee.

''If you are going to have a bunch of boys riding around in these trucks with loaded guns and factor into this phenomena called road rage, you are going to have a bunch of bodies splattered on the highway like fried eggs.''

Rep. Veasy said the public had become convinced that the risk of danger was so great that they need a weapon to protect themselves.

''Pro-gun does not mean you are pro-America,'' she said, adding that Second Amendment rights were being misconstrued. She said the purpose of the amendment was to allow the militia in Revolutionary War times to keep guns in their homes. It was not about ''everybody protecting themselves in their house.''

Gun enthusiasts and law enforcement officers alike are confused over what is legal and what is not, West said.

West and Tennessee Firearms Association spokesman John Harris have suggested a number of changes, including replacing the word ''handguns'' in the law with the word ''weapons,'' a change that would broaden the kinds of weapons that could legally be carried.

State Rep. Chris Newton, R-Cleveland, asked why the change was necessary.

''There are weapons and there are handguns. We want to put the two together,'' West said.

Harris noted that some states ''issue a weapons permit as opposed to a handgun or firearms permit.''

''If we are certifying someone to use a handgun in self-defense, does it not make sense that they be allowed to carry something less lethal, which is considered a club and is a prohibited weapon?'' Harris said.

''There are a number of places like restaurant establishments where you could not carry a handgun but you could carry a baton.''

West and Harris also are proposing legislation that would allow anyone with a carry permit to have loaded shotguns and rifles in their vehicles.

''If I can conceal a handgun and walk around downtown Nashville, why does it become a problem if I am driving around western Maury County and I have the shotgun laying in the back of my extended cab, but one is legal and one isn't?'' Harris said.

This time of year, he said, people are going to shooting ranges to zero in their deer rifles, and some forget to unload their weapons for the drive home. If they are stopped by a law enforcement officer and the officer sees that the weapon is loaded, they are in trouble, he said.

''I had a case like that up in Gallatin,'' said Harris, a Nashville lawyer. ''This kid had a handgun carry permit and was coming back from the range and didn't unload his rifle. He got stopped for an unrelated issue. The rifle was quite visible and the officer asked to check it. This kid said yes, and all of a sudden something as innocuous as transporting the rifle from point A to point B becomes a criminal offense.''

On the table

Bills sponsored by state Rep. Ben West Jr., D-Hermitage, and backed by the Tennessee Firearms Association would:

Relax prohibitions against permit holders' carrying a handgun on school grounds and in public parks.

Allow people who have a residence in Tennessee but have their official residency in another state to obtain a Tennessee permit.

Liberalize reciprocity arrangements with other states, whereby Tennessee would recognize permits from other states.

Require the advertisement for the sale of confiscated weapons to be extended from 30 days to 40 days.

Close records on who has gun carry permits unless an individual permit holder allows the information to be made public.

Require law enforcement firing ranges to be open to the public when not in use by law enforcement personnel.

Require people teaching firearms courses to be certified by the commissioner of the state Department of Commerce and Insurance instead of the state Department of Safety.

Duren Cheek covers state government. Reach him at or at (615) 726-4889.

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