The Tennessee House approved Monday evening a measure that would strike down local government prohibitions keeping gun-carry permit holders from packing in city parks.
House Bill 995 was shepherded to passage by Republican Reps. Mike Harrison of Rogersville and Tilman Goins of Morristown. The bill seeks to mandate a single statewide standard for where licensed firearm-carriers are allowed to have their gun on their person.
Proponents of the legislation say there’s currently a lot of confusion when it comes when and where you can carry a gun if you have a permit. They also argue that keeping a firearm on your person may be necessary for safety in some parks.
Goins pointed to several news articles detailing violent attacks by criminal with guns in parks in areas like Nashville and Memphis. “It’s not about aggression, it’s about protection,” he said.
The controversial bill passed on a vote of 65-21. Six lawmakers, including Republican Speaker of the House Beth Harwell abstained. Another seven were either out of the chambers at the time of the vote or simply didn’t feel compelled register they were present.
Two Democrats — John DeBerry of Memphis and John Mark Windle of Livingston — joined the vast majority of Republicans to pass the measure.
While no Republicans voted against the measure, five abstained besides Harwell — and all but one hold top committee posts. They were Education Administration and Planning Chairman Harry Brooks of Knoxville, State Government Committee Chairman Bob Ramsey of Maryville, Joint Fiscal Review Committee Chairman Mark White of Memphis, Business and Utilities Subcommittee Chairman Art Swann of Maryville, and Knoxville freshman Eddie Smith.
Representatives not excused from voting who did not cast votes were Republicans Andy Holt of Dresden, Patsy Hazlewood of Signal Mountain and Bill Sanderson of Kenton, as well as Rock Island Democrat Kevin Dunlap.
Bo Mitchell, a Nashville Democrat fretted that Tennessee would lose a lot of tourism if this bill were to become law, a similar argument made several years ago by opponents to 2009’s “guns in bars” law. However, during a budget hearing in December, former Tourist Development Commissioner Susan Whitaker informed Haslam that the state’s tourism industry has continued to show “exciting growth” in recent years.
Most of the chamber’s Democrats opposed the legislation, and several amendments were filed in an attempt to water-down the measure.
Prior to introducing his “series of amendments,” House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh, D-Ripley, tried to strike a deal with the supermajority. “If you pass one, I will withdraw the rest of them,” Fitzhugh said. The offer got a big laugh, but no takers.
The amendments the Democrats filed included providing exemptions for specific localities — such as Davidson County, exempting parks that bordered schools or establishing a “grandfather” harbor for locally owned parks where no-compromise gun-bans are already on the books. Several other amendments would have allowed various exemptions — like Sunday-only bans, or during religious observances or other specific events, like sporting contests or off-campus school events.
Mitchell, who sponsored the religious events exemption, likened the GOP voting to allow guns to be carried at religious events as “voting against Easter, Christmas, Hanukkah and other religious events.”
Another amendment would have required the state to cover the relocation cost for any sporting events or other school events that move as a result of the measure.
All amendments were introduced, and then easily tabled by the GOP supermajority.
Following the floor session, Fitzhugh told TNReport that this was the “first time” he can “remember a bill of this significance had been allowed to go without any question. Nobody got to ask a question — those for it, and those against it.”
“That was pretty much unprecedented,” Fitzhugh said.
Gov. Bill Haslam has voiced his opposition to the measure, suggesting that it’s a “property rights” issue. According to Haslam, the local governments own and manage the parks, and thus should be able to dictate the rules as to what is allowed or not allowed on the property.
The bill cleared the House Finance Ways and Means committee last week after being amended to say cities and counties aren’t required to remove the signs indicating guns are not allowed on the premises, which made the legislation revenue neutral.
A similar measure failed in the House Finance Subcommittee last year, due to its $38,000 fiscal note.
The senate version — SB1171, sponsored by Huntingdon Republican John Stevens — is scheduled to be heard by the full Senate on Wednesday.
Alex Harris can be contacted at Alex@TNReport.com.