Tennessee’s most prominent gun-rights group is joining forces with a GOP primary challenger to take on a powerful Republican committee head in the state House of Representatives.
Steve Gawrys, a businessman from Brentwood, has taken aim at the Tennessee House District 61 seat currently occupied by Charles Sargent, an 18-year veteran of the Legislature and chairman the House Finance, Ways and Means Committee.
Last week Gawrys spoke at a Tennessee Firearms Association dinner in Cool Springs. In addition to riling up Second Amendment enthusiasts for the coming election, the event was designed to lay the foundation for a local Williamson County chapter of TFA, which bills itself as “Tennessee’s only no-compromise gun group.”
TFA has let it be known it’s coming after Sargent in the wake of two firearms-friendly bills dying in his committee in the last days of the legislative session. “It’s no secret that Rep Charles Sargent is at the top of our list of bad legislators who tried to stop pro-gun bills this last legislative session, specifically the open carry and guns-in-parks bills,” TFA executive director John Harris said in an emailed press release sent out the day before the April 24 event.
The TFA meet-up, which drew about three dozen to a Mexican restaurant just off I-65, offered Gawrys a chance to serve up some spicy red meat to a roomful of suburban Middle Tennessee conservatives who believe that a lot of the political fare dished out by the administration of Gov. Bill Haslam and the GOP’s two-chamber legislative supermajority has been pretty bland.
Gawrys said he thinks Sargent has lost track of the pulse and priorities of voters in the district, which doesn’t have a Democrat running this year.
“Like a lot of people,” said Gawrys, “I’m totally frustrated, completely frustrated.”
“People are tired of the gamesmanship, they want to see transparency,” he added. Gawrys accused Sargent, as head of the key budget-building committee, of maneuvering behind the scenes at the Capitol to attach “faulty fiscal notes” to bills that House GOP leaders and the governor would like to see get lost in the legislative shuffle.
Three statehouse initiatives where fiscal notes were particularly galling to Gawrys involved two gun-rights enhancement bills and efforts to get the state out of Common Core, a nationwide education-standards push that has over the past year developed a lot of detractors among both conservatives and liberals across the country.
Gawrys said Common-Core skeptics in the district are incredulous at how indefinitely shelving an expansive and untested new education program could somehow end up costing the state more than the status quo, as fiscal notes prepared by legislative staff have indicated. Gawrys accused Sargent of plotting “behind the scenes at the 11th hour” against opponents of Common Core and the associated Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers testing.
The Legislature actually did passed a PARCC testing delay bill — to the chagrin of the Haslam administration – but only for one year. Sargent voted in favor of that measure, which the House approved on an 85-8 vote. In the Senate it passed 28-0. The PARCC testing measure, House Bill 1549, had not as of Monday been signed by the governor.
Gun bills that passed handily in the Senate but misfired in the House included a limited “constitutional carry” measure to allow Tennesseans to carry firearms in an “open,” visible fashion without government-issued permits. Another proposed change in law would’ve granted permission to anyone who does have a valid handgun-carry permit to ignore county- or city-imposed restrictions on packing a firearm in a local park or recreation area.
Both measures were adamantly opposed by the Haslam administration, and they were dropped or defeated during the Legislature’s last week after being sent to the House Finance, Ways and Means subcommittee because they were deemed to have fiscal notes — even though the sponsors argued the bills could be amended to eliminate any additional or potential costs to state or local taxpayers.
In an interview with a Nashville TV news station last week, Sargent defended himself as a friend of firearms owners. Sargent said he’s “all for guns,” that he’s “a big Second Amendment person.” He said he’s garnered “an ‘A’ rating or better” all his legislative career on National Rifle Association lawmaker-performance reviews.
The situation in which Sargent now finds himself obviously bears some similarity to that of former Hendersonville Rep. Debra Maggart in 2012. A powerful House GOP insider, Maggart found herself looking down the barrel of a full-frontal assault by Second Amendment activists who blamed her for the demise that year of the so-called guns-in-parking-lots bill. Maggart, who was at the time chairing the House Republican Caucus, got crossways not only with Harris and the TFA, but also the National Rifle Association, which dumped a massive payload of primary campaign spending on the district.
The NRA hasn’t taken nearly the interest in the Tennessee General Assembly that it did two years ago, and so it seems unlikely at this time anyway that it’ll train its heavy financial weaponry on Sargent.
But while the NRA may be the biggest gun-rights group in the country, it isn’t the only one. Dudley Brown of the National Association of Gun Rights was actually the headliner at the TFA’s Williamson County event — Gawrys was just a warm-up act. Brown declared that his organization is an up-and-comer, and one of the group’s big aims is to boost its national profile as an unwavering advocacy alternative to the NRA, which in Brown’s telling tends toward timidity and, occasionally, out-and-out surrender of core Second Amendment principles.
Brown said “helping local gun-groups build their resources” so as to get properly outfitted to hunt down and bag “RINOs” is just the sort of thing his group is geared for.
“The kind of shenanigans that just happened in your state Legislature should not be tolerated by gun owners in this state,” he said.