Tennessee’s General Assembly is back in session
January 2012 brings the Tennessee Legislature officially back in session. This is the second half of the two year 107th General Assembly. It is also an election year where all House members are up for re-election and one-half of the Senate members are up for election.
The House remains under the leadership of Speaker Beth Harwell and some of her lieutenants. The Senate remains under the control of Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey. Harwell has a clear and consistent voting history that lacks support for 2nd Amendment issues. On the other hand, Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey has a fairly consistent voting record in support of 2nd Amendment issues.
Its common knowledge that the House now has 64 Republicans of the 99 total House members. Only 50 are required to pass any law. Republicans, as a group, have a 14 vote margin to allow for those Republicans who will not vote to support 2nd Amendment issues. That is significant because the Speaker, Beth Harwell, would historically fit within that 14 vote minority. Nevertheless, it was anticipated by many that with Republicans taking control and all the grandstanding about how good Republicans are on the 2nd Amendment that noteable progress on firearms and 2nd Amendment issues would have occurred in 2011. It did not and that can be largely placed as as the consequence of the preferences of Beth Harwell and perhaps even Debra Maggart.
The complete lack of material progess on 2nd Amendment issues did not miss the attention of the news media, the NRA, TFA, or others. Apparently, there was enough questions raised and complaints made that the House Republican leadership felt it was important to respond to publicly.
On July 13, 2011, Rep. Gerald McCormick released a letter to House Republican caucus members in which he announced the creation of the “Republican Caucus Firearms Issues Task Force” (for the House of Representatives). That letter provided (with some emphasis added)
Fellow Caucus Members:
I hope that this letter finds you well. I am very proud of the great things we accomplished together during this past legislative session, and confident that we will continue that positive momentum when we return in January. In order to accomplish that goal, it is vital that we devote time during recess to study important issues that impact all those that live across our great state.
With that in mind, I am writing this letter to advise you that I am appointing a Republican Caucus Firearms Issues Task Force. The rights guaranteed by the Second Amendment are sacred to many citizens, and we must ensure we craft responsible legislation to protect those rights. This task force will be responsible for studying current state laws to identify if any changes may need to be made. In addition, it will meet with outside groups to gain a better understanding of these issues. The task force will report back to members of the Republican Caucus with results of their study.
The Republican Caucus Firearms Issues Task Force will consist of the following members:
Rep. Curry Todd, Chairman
Speaker Pro Tempore Judd Matheny
Rep. Joshua Evans
Rep. Andy Holt
Rep. Barrett Rich
Rep. Glen Casada
Rep. John Forgety
Please feel free to contact members of this task force if you have any additional questions about this important issue.
On July 14, 2011, TFA sent an email to all members of the Republican caucus task force as well as to House leaders and Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey. No material acknowledgement much less response was made. So, looking at the events from Rep. McCormick’s July 2011 letter to the present, what has happened? Nothing of material notice on this declaration that there was a vital need to review current laws to identify changes that “need” to be made and to meet with outside groups to better under these issues. Was that mere political “huggy – kissy” addressed to 2nd Amendment supporters or was it said with genuine determination to address these issues? As of August 2011, nothing had happened or been announced. As of mid-September, another TFALAC report noted that nothing had happened but that “word had it” that a meeting would take place in late October – although there was no written announcement to confirm it from the Task Force.
In mid-October, the chair of the Task Force, Rep. Curry Todd was arrested in Nashville on DUI charges. Statements reported in the Times Free Press on October 13, and attributed to Rep. Gerald McCormick suggest that the House Republican Caucus would focus its attention in 2012 on issues other than Second Amendment topics and that it will not “push” the 2nd Amendment issues in 2012. McCormick’s statement, viewed in light of what the House Republican Caucus did in the 2011 legislative cycle, could be construed to mean that the House Republican leadership saw no importance in legislatively addressing the 2nd Amendment, the existing unconstitutional laws, or addressing the other concerns of Tennessee’s firearms owners. According to the news report,
The future of the task force itself is in limbo with House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga, who created the panel, saying he will make a decision about it by next week.
McCormick said Rep. Curry Todd, R-Collierville, voluntarily resigned his task force chairmanship during a conversation with him earlier today. McCormick emphasized Todd still remains chairman of the House State and Local Government Committee.
“I just said thank you, I think that would be the best thing,” McCormick said of Todd’s offer.
Meanwhile, the next meeting of the firearms task force, which McCormick created, has been postponed. McCormick said the task force could be disbanded.
“I was really hoping the economy would be roaring back by now, and it’s not,” McCormick said of his reasoning. “I think people want us to focus more on economic development and jobs and leave some of the other issues to the side for the time being.
“This is a timely opportunity to do that with the gun task force,” McCormick said. “I don’t think we need to push those issues right now.”
Then, on Monday, October 17, paper reported that House Speaker Pro Tempore, Judd Matheny, who was vice-chairing the task force had expressed a desire to continue with the task force notwithstanding what McCormick has said. The Times Free Press reported:
Majority Leader Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga, said he decided the group, which is looking at expansion of Tennessee’s handgun-carry permit laws, would go on after House Speaker Pro Tempore Judd Matheny, R-Tullahoma, who is the panel’s vice chair, voiced interest in taking over as chairman.
“I just decided to keep it going,” said McCormick, who weighed over the weekend whether to disband the panel in order to focus more on job-related issues. “I still say it’s not going to be a top legislative priority by any means.”
The former chairman, Rep. Curry Todd, R-Memphis, resigned from the post after his arrest.
McCormick said Todd’s situation also shouldn’t interfere with legislative discussions about expanding places that permit holders can carry their weapons.
Following those events, the caucus did meet on the Monday following Thanksgiving. No notice was given to TFA (despite repeated emails to all task force members) that the meeting was to be had and it turned out that only a handful of people were altered at the last minute of its meeting. No report has been issued or released to the public. No subsequent meetings have been publicly held or announced.
Its now January 2012. At this time, news reports consistently quote Harwell, Haslam and others on the 2012 legislative agenda. There is no mention of the Task Force, any report from the Task Force, or any 2nd Amendment issues that are included in any of this agenda. To the contrary, reports are just the opposite that House Leadership, noteably Harwell and Maggart, are communicating to members that the House leadership not only does not want to pursue 2nd Amendment issues but that it wants to minimize or prevent any such bills from being offered or advanced.
Reviewing comments by Harwell, its clear her support for 2nd Amendment issues is no greater than if not less than the support that we saw from Jimmy Naifeh (D.) in the last few years of his service as Speaker. Certainly, that is the message that Speaker Harwell has sent. In a comment to the Tennessean on these issues, she claimed – some might conclude falsely – that the caucus is 100% committed to gun rights. Certainly, that assertion has to be constrasted against her prior votes since she generally votes against 2nd Amendment legislation and there are some “left of center” Republicans who go right along with her on those issues.
Harwell’s statements to the news media clearly reflect that that, at least for her, the issues pertaining to gun rights are just another topic to be taken up in rotation – if at all:
Harwell, whose candidacy for speaker was opposed by many gun rights groups, is viewed with particular skepticism. She said critics should remember the banner years enjoyed by gun rights groups in 2009 and 2010, when Republicans pushed through more permissive gun laws.
“They know that our Republican caucus is 100 percent committed to gun rights,” she said.
Harwell does not defend her own voting record but references passage of bills that she voted against.
In comments that Harwell made to the Nashville City Paper, she goes further and makes clear that she, as Speaker, had no intent of spending any time at all on firearms issues in 2011 and similar if not worse is now foreseen for 2012.
Even Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey, an unabashed gun advocate, has admitted to reporters that he discouraged new gun bills to avoid media coverage that might make it appear that the legislature was distracted. The new House speaker, Nashville’s Beth Harwell, dismissed outright any need for new gun laws.
“We addressed a good number of gun bills last session,” Harwell told reporters shortly after Republicans nominated her late last year to preside over the House. “I feel that clearly we received a mandate from the public that we need to be focused on jobs and education and the economy this session.”
If these hints are accurate, and they certainly seem to be, what should firearms owners and 2nd Amendment supporters expect from the General Assembly in 2012 —— nothing, nothing at all. Since 1995, legislative progress on firearms issues could prove ultimately to be worse with a Republican governor and Beth Harwell as speaker of the House (and those in the caucus who support her) than in any year in which the House was controlled by Speaker Jimmy Naifeh and Democratic leadership. One needs only a barely functional memory to recall the shenigans that occurred under Speaker Naifeh and his battalion of shadow operatives who were apparently instructed to stall or kill as much 2nd Amendment (particularly NRA requested) legislation as possible. Despite that, many Democrats including Eddie Bass, John Mark Windle, Ben West, Doug Jackson and others stood up for 2nd Amendment rights.
Even with Harwell in control by what is rumored to be a 1 or 2 vote margin in the caucus, there are certainly House Republican members who are willing to support 2nd Amendment issues and all concede that if the bills get to floor for a full vote that almost any 2nd Amendment legislation will pass – including perhaps even what is commonly referred to as Constitutional Carry. One must wonder to what extent the pro-2nd Amendment legislators are being suppressed by “suggestions” of future consequences coming from the Speaker’s office.
It is important to make clear, however, that we are not suggesting that the Legislature needs to totally focus on 2nd Amendment issues. Looking at 2011, one must examine not whether a few specific bills were passed but the overall tone of the legislative session which involved passage of 510 public acts, 32 private acts, and way over 1000 resolutions.
Would paying some meaningful attention to constitutional rights and 2nd Amendment issues really have the effect of totalling derailing everything else that the Republican leadership and Governor want to accomplish? That is a silly question and a foolish assertion. There is plenty of time to pay attention to other issues, as shown by 2011’s actions, yet still allocate a small but reasonable amount of time to address some 2nd Amendment issues. This suggests that its not an issue of time. Its not an issue of expenses. But that raises the question of why then play this game with voters across the state? One might consider that its nothing more than partisan politics in an election cycle where “leadership” desires to avoid news reports of 2nd Amendment issues and preclude Democratic opponents (or even primary challengers) from referencing 2nd Amendment topics. It does not appear that such leadership has given any material consideration to the backlash that can and should arise against them and those that support them from Tennessee’s firearms owners. Why? Well, as one House leader has stated, its because Tennessee’s gun owners really do not have a choice but to support Republicans because Republicans are the “best friends” that gun owners (and presumably conservatives in general) have. Looking at 2011 and what can be expected in 2012, that assertion raises the question of “Really?”
Pay close attention in 2012. Tennessee conservatives, firearms owners, 2nd Amendment supporters are now faced with vetting out the disingenuous and making sure that their actions are recalled when its time to raise money, campaign and vote. In particular, Harwell and a few others in leadership may be hard to defeat in an election but those in the caucus who voted to put them in power and who support them in power may be much easier targets….