House, Senate Republicans Reach Accord on Gun Bill

Should the Legislature vote to approve a tweaked “guns-in-parks” proposal, handgun-carry permit holders will be allowed to possess a pistol at any public park in the state.

However, firearms will remain prohibited at the Capitol, and Tennesseans packing otherwise legal heat will be blocked from being in the “immediate vicinity” of any park property that “is being used” as part of a “school sanctioned event.”

Tuesday afternoon three members from each chamber met to hash out an agreeable version of House Bill 995, which passed the two chambers in different forms earlier this month.

Through the legislative process, the measure picked up some contentious amendments, including a Senate amendment allowing permit-holders to carry in the Capitol, and one from the House prohibiting openly carrying an imitation or toy gun within 150 feet of a school.

Huntingdon Republican John Stevens, the Senate sponsor, said he would like the conference committee report to allow a handgun permit holder the “fundamental right of self-defense,” wherever they may be.

The committee also included House sponsors Mike Harrison of Rogersville and Tilman Goins of Morristown, as well as Senate Government Operations Committee Chairman Mike Bell of Riceville. Nashville Democrats Sen. Jeff Yarbro and Rep. Harold Love, Jr., rounded out the panel.

The majority recommendation struck both amendments from the bill, while keeping a provision to not require the locals remove any signage banning guns from their parks.

The report produced by the committee also clarified guns wouldn’t be allowed “immediate vicinity” of grounds being used by a school at the time. However, the new proposal also created a legal exception for permit-holders who may be unaware of a school event taking place, which allows them to willingly leave a restricted area once notified.

The vote was 4-2 in favor of the majority report, with both Democrats opposed, which will soon be presented to both chambers for approval.

Stevens told reporters after the vote the term “immediate vicinity” was purposefully undefined. “If you go into a specific feet, or a specific thing, we’ve created a gun-free zone, and that’s not what we want to do,” he said.

Stevens added his intention was to “create a situation where the lawful handgun-carry permit-holder is able to protect themselves, but not interfere with school events.”

The proper distance would be determined by law enforcement agents in individual cases, he said.

Yarbro also shared his views with reporters following the hearing. “I fear that we’ve created more problems than we’ve solved,” he said.

According to the freshman Senate Democratic Caucus chairman, the failure of the conference committee to support allowing permit-holders to carry at the Capitol showed hypocrisy and an unwillingness “to subject ourselves to the same standards” being imposed on the state’s local governments.

Additionally, Yarbro was unhappy with the lack of attention paid by the panel’s majority members to the issue of parks adjacent to schools.

And Beth Roth with the Safe Tennessee Project — a “gun violence prevention organization” — told reporters after the meeting she didn’t feel like “there was any adequate answer” as to how to handle the issue of parks that abut school property.

“Honestly, what Sen. Stevens just said about school resource officers should call 911 if they look out and see someone in a park with a gun, that seems very confusing to me since the whole point of all these bills seems to give people the right to carry guns in these parks,” Roth said.

She added not only is Tennessee home to many accidental shootings, but the state Department of Safety’s gun permit statistics show there were about 1,500 Tennesseans who had carry permits revoked or suspended in 2014.

According to Tennessee permit statistics from last year, 1,541 Tennesseans had their permit rights suspended (1,257) or revoked (284).

However, John Harris, a Nashville attorney and executive director of the Tennessee Firearms Association, told TNReport permits get suspended and revoked for many reasons not specific to violent crime or negligence.

According to Harris, permit-holders can lose the right to carry for failure to pay the renewal fee, failure to pay child support or writing bad checks and “other non-violent crimes.”

Tennessee Department of Public Safety statistics indicate that of the suspended permits, 491 were due to misdemeanor convictions, 457 were for felony arrests, 165 were from orders of protection, 143 were from administrative suspensions and one was suspended by a court. Of the revocations, 204 were court ordered or administrative, and 80 were the result of felony convictions.

But although Harris and his organization support expanding gun rights for law-abiding Tennesseans, some concerns still remain with regard to where this year’s legislation is going, specifically the “school grounds issue.”

“It sounds like they didn’t deal with the problem, they just found an approach that doesn’t really solve the problem of the term ‘used’ affecting not just parks, but all other kinds of properties,” Harris said. “It sounds like they just caved.”

While Harris is happy to see an expansion of gun rights “moving forward,” he’s concerned it “leaves the opportunity for abuse by local governments” who might “assert” a park is in use by a school so often that “it’s effectively off-limits all the time.”

He added he also sees an issue with the “morphing situation” this legislation creates, where a park generally open to gun-carriers could suddenly become closed because a school is using the property.

“That to me is just a bad way to establish public policy, particularly on a statute that could send you to prison — it’s a Class E felony,” Harris said.

Alex Harris can be contacted at Alex@TNReport.com.