The Tennessee Legislature’s second attempt to allow handgun permit holders to carry their weapons in certain establishments that serve food and alcohol has cleared House and Senate committee hearings.
A similar bill passed last year that would have allowed permit holders to carry their weapons where alcohol and food are both served, but food sales predominate. However, a Nashville judge shot the law down. She said it put too much responsibility on permit holders to figure out for themselves the bottom-line sales information of a particular restaurant or tavern.
Legislation to restore the law this year has been progressing through the House. Supporters say they’re determined to rework the statute to make it pass legal muster.
But House Speaker Kent Williams, R-Elizabethton, who has said in the past that he prefers leaving the matter with appeals courts for now, voiced concern during Tuesday’s House Finance Committee meeting that the new legislation would still probably cause legal problems for the state.
“No matter what we pass…it’s going to be challenged in the courts,” said Williams. “I don’t care if it says ‘bars,’ ‘restaurants,’ ‘kindergarten,’ or whatever.”
Like last year’s legislation, the current bill, HB3125/SB3012, owners of establishments could post signs at entrances announcing that firearms are banned from their premises.
This year, however, the bill is somewhat different. An amendment by Rep. Harry Tindell, a Knoxville Democrat, places the onus for determining an establishment’s alcohol-food sales breakdown on the business owner. Under the terms of Tindell’s amendment, signs prohibiting weapons must be posted by the owner if most of the establishment’s sales come from alcohol.
The bill sponsor, Rep. Curry Todd, R-Collierville, objected. “That’s what we had in the bill we had last year — it was ruled unconstitutional,” he said.
Tindell responded that he’s been informed by attorneys that the new wording isn’t as likely to invite legal challenge.
Todd remained skeptical. “What’s going to be food — is it going to be food? Peanuts? Chips?” he asked. “Is it going to be hot food?”
Rep. Richard Montgomery, a Sevierville Republican, interjected that judges ought to be able to “figure that out.”
“Food is whatever you put in your mouth and chew up and swallow and it’s got nourishment,” explained Montgomery. “I just hope and pray that when the judge sees it that they don’t go blind and don’t understand what we’re talking about here. It’s 50 percent — whatever you put in your mouth and eat — versus what you drink.”
Tindell’s amendment passed 27-4.
Two other amendments, both offered by House Minority Leader Gary Odom, a Nashville Democrat, were defeated.
One would have allowed the signs to have a picture of a handgun with a red circle-and-slash over it. It was tabled on a vote of 16-14. Another would have increased the penalties if permit holders violated the law, but was tabled, 17-14, after Speaker Williams mentioned the penalty for violating the proposed law would be worse for a permit holder than for a non-permit holder under Odom’s amendment.
The bill as amended passed on a vote of 20-6, with five members of the committee voting present-but-not-voting.