NASHVILLE -- Tennessee lawmakers found themselves in the political crosshairs this year as gun-rights advocates pushed several dozen gun bills, including controversial moves to expand places where handgun-carry permit holders can take their loaded weapons.
By the time the smoke cleared, lawmakers had passed 18 gun-related bills before adjourning earlier this month.
Successful bills ranged from allowing handgun-carry permit holders to bring loaded firearms into restaurants selling alcohol -- provided they do not drink -- to a measure that claims guns manufactured solely within Tennessee are not subject to federal regulations.
"It seems like the gun lobby has decided to use Tennessee as their laboratory now to get basically their entire agenda through what has been a seemingly complicit Legislature," said Chad Ramsey of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, based in Washington, D.C.
John Harris of the Tennessee Firearms Association, a Second Amendment advocacy group, acknowledged that "gun rights advocates have had a much-better-than-average year" in Tennessee.
"But," Mr. Harris said, "I think you have to frame that against the fact that, for several years, (former House Speaker) Jimmy Naifeh has been bottling bills up in subcommittee. So it was sort of an unusual floodgate since Naifeh's control was removed."
Many of the bills that passed, such as one allowing permit holders to go armed in federal, state and local parks, also have been enacted in other states, Mr. Harris noted. The parks bill allows local governments to exempt their parks, playgrounds and ballfields, and Chattanooga officials say they plan to do just that.
Other gun bills let permit holders carry loaded rifles and shotguns in their vehicles if the ammunition isn't chambered. But, on the last day in the Senate, efforts to close off public access to the list of who is allowed to carry a gun failed by three votes.
State handgun permit records show that 34 of the 132 lawmakers have handgun-carry permits. At least three other lawmakers are active-duty law enforcement officials who are authorized to carry weapons.
For years, Rep. Naifeh, D-Covington, blocked gun bills he disagreed with in subcommittee. But in November elections, Republicans increased their control of the Senate and were poised to take control of the House with a 50-49 majority. The 49 Democrats, including Rep. Naifeh, however, voted to elect Rep. Kent Williams, R-Elizabethton, as speaker.
In that new role, Rep. WIlliams has made passage of some gun bills a priority. He appointed a majority of gun proponents to the six-member House Subcommittee on Criminal Practice and Procedure, which hears gun bills. Among them was Rep. Eric Watson, R-Cleveland, a Bradley County Sheriff's lieutenant, whom the speaker made committee chairman.
The new gun bills are "a good thing, beneficial to the citizens of the state, especially with the crime rise we have had in Tennessee," Rep. Watson said. "In just the past two days we've seen law enforcement officials shot. These criminals on the road don't respect the law. They're surely not going to respect our citizens. We can't always be there."
Sen. Andy Berke, D-Chattanooga, however, said he thought the General Assembly went too far with some bills, including the "guns in bars" bill.
"Every ounce of my common sense told me that guns and alcohol do not mix and this was pure and simple a bad idea," Sen. Berke said.
Gov. Phil Bredesen vetoed the "guns in bars" bill in late May, saying "the notion that this bill would permit one to carry a concealed weapon into a crowded bar at midnight on a Saturday night defies common sense."
But the House and Senate easily overrode him, their first veto override of Gov. Bredesen, a Democrat, in his 6 1/2 years in office. In addition to prohibiting permit holders from drinking, the bill allows restaurants, nightclubs and bars to post signs banning guns.
Chris Cox, executive director of the National Rifle Association's Institute for Legislative Action, castigated Gov. Bredesen on the veto and contended that 36 states have similar laws.
But Mr. Ramsey, the Brady Campaign spokesman, said the center calculates 22 of the 37 states that have "shall issue" laws regarding handgun permits do not let handgun permit holders go into restaurants and bars selling alcohol.
NRA lobbyist Heidi Keesling said as many as 39 states have such laws but referred questions to Mr. Cox, who was at an NRA function Friday and unavailable.
Nobody in the Tennessee Legislature "wants to take people's guns away," Sen. Berke said.
"But what we saw this year was frequently some of the most extreme gun legislation that people could dream up," he said.
He cited a bill that would have required employers to let employees with handgun permits store their weapons in their vehicles on company parking lots.
"We saw legislation intended to trump private property rights in favor of gun carrying," the senator said.
The bill, sponsored in the Senate by Sen. Dewayne Bunch, R-Cleveland, stalled in Rep. Watson's House subcommittee when businesses, including FedEx Corp., strongly spoke out against it.
"That's a bill that I recommended to summer study myself because of the facts, this property rights versus Second Amendment rights, what takes precedence over the other," Rep. Watson said.
He said the same thing happened with another measure that would have allowed full-time faculty and staff at public colleges and universities in Tennessee to carry handguns if not otherwise prohibited by law.
Mr. Harris, the Tennessee Firearms Association president, said as many as 10 other states have laws allowing permit holders to store their firearm in their cars. He said commuters can face dangers.
"To what extent do we balance with people's ability to defend themselves on the way to work ... the rights of a property owner to say no guns allowed?" Mr. Harris asked.
Andy Sher is a Nashville-based staff writer covering Tennessee state government and politics for the Times Free Press. A Washington correspondent from 1999-2005 for the Times Free Press, Andy previously headed up state Capitol coverage for The Chattanooga Times, worked as a state Capitol reporter for The Nashville Banner and was a contributor to The Tennessee Journal, among other publications. Andy worked for 17 years at The Chattanooga Times covering police, health care, county government, ...