Tennessee would turn into the Wild West. Drunken shootouts would be the norm. And tourists would shun the state, opting for safer, calmer locales.
Those were the predictions of opponents of a law to allow any of the state’s 317,000 gun owners with handgun carry permits to take their weapons into bars and restaurants that serve alcohol so long as they abstain from drinking. But two years after the law’s initial passage, administration officials say the courts have not convicted anyone of wielding a gun while intoxicated at a bar, nor has tourism in the Volunteer State plummeted.
In 2010, the year after the law first passed, the state’s tourism numbers were up 6.3 percent, according to state officials. Every county saw a boost in tourism, according to a report by the Department of Tourism Development and the U.S. Travel Association.
“It doesn’t surprise me that tourism didn’t drop,” said Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, R-Blountville. “There wasn’t one documented case still to this day of someone going into a bar, a gun permit holder, and using their firearm. There’s still not.”
The issue drew renewed attention this week, after the sponsor of the so-called guns-in-bars law, Rep. Curry Todd, R-Collierville, was arrested in Nashville on charges of drunk driving and carrying a loaded handgun while intoxicated. Critics of the law say the arrest shoots holes in the law, but Ramsey rejected those suggestions.
The idea that the incident should trigger a repeal of the law is the logical equivalent of arguing that people should no longer be allowed to drive because of the chance of drunk driving, he said.
Critics of the law contend the bump-in-tourism statistics don’t reflect the groups that took their conventions elsewhere out of fear they’d encounter hordes of heavily armed hillbillies whooping it up in the local honky-tonks.
“As wonderful as Tennessee is, it sends an image out to the world that we’re a bunch of red-thumbed rednecks with a bunch of guns,” said Adam Dread, a Nashville attorney who led the court challenge against the law in 2009,
While Dread says his sense is to “feel sorry” for Rep. Todd, he thinks the Shelby County Republican’s arrest “exposed the hypocrisy of the whole bill” and does indeed buttresses the case for repeal of the law.
“Every law-abiding gun owner should be ticked about it,” said Dread.
In fact, abiding by the law appears to be just what the vast majority of Tennessee’s licensed gun-carriers are doing when they’re packing heat in establishments that serve alcohol. According to the state Department of Safety and Homeland Security, not one person with a handgun permit has been convicted of brandishing their weapon while drinking in a bar.
“We have not been notified by any courts across the state for any violations of that law,” said department spokeswoman Jennifer Donnals. “To our knowledge, there have been no convictions of that law.”
In 2009, Todd led lawmakers in passing the “guns-in-bars” bill, overriding a veto by then-Gov. Phil Bredesen, who said the legislation was “reckless and lacking basic safeguards to ensure public safety.” A Nashville judge later weighed in, striking down the law and saying its language was unconstitutionally vague in its definition of restaurants and bars.
In 2010, Todd got his bill passed a second time but with more specific language, including a provision allowing individual patrons to bring guns with them into any establishment that serves alcohol unless the bar or restaurant bans guns. Again, the Legislature approved the measure despite Bredesen’s protests.
In an emailed statement Wednesday, Todd said he was “deeply sorry” for the events surrounding his arrest, adding he would talk with House Speaker Beth Harwell next week about whether he should step down from his post as chairman of the State and Local Government Committee.
House Republican Leader Gerald McCormick told reporters he wouldn’t rush to judgment on Todd’s arrest, but said everyone makes mistakes.
“I think it’s a bad idea to drink and carry a gun, obviously. Now I don’t know the details of what happened with Rep. Todd (Tuesday) night, but I think he would agree with me, and I know he would agree with me, that people who are drinking should not have loaded handguns with them,” said McCormick, of Chattanooga.
Asked whether the allegations against Todd call into question whether other handgun carry permit holders should continue to be trusted to follow the law, McCormick said, “Until we find out all the details, I’d be hesitant to answer that.”
Democratic Party Chairman Chip Forrester demanded Todd resign from the Legislature and said any inaction by Harwell will reveal whether “she believes Republican leaders deserve special treatment or she believes these actions demand consequences.”
Todd was arrested in Nashville at 10:55 p.m. Tuesday down the street from Vanderbilt University. According to a police affidavit, Todd reeked of alcohol, his eyes were “red, watery and bloodshot,” and his speech was slurred. Police said he was “extremely unsteady on his feet” during the field sobriety tests, and Todd attempted to lean on his vehicle to steady himself. He refused a breath alcohol test, although he admitted to having two drinks.
Police later learned Todd had a loaded Smith & Wesson 38 Special in a holster tucked between the driver’s seat and the center console. He was released from jail Wednesday on a $3,000 bond.
Todd, who is retired from a career in law enforcement, could lose his handgun carry permit for three years if convicted of possessing the handgun while under the influence, a Class A misdemeanor which is punishable with less than one year of jail time and a fine of no more than $2,500.