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Focus on Guns-in-Parks Bill Shifts to Haslam

There’s a prickly constitutional question at heart of debate: Can lawmakers delegate gun-regulation powers to state?

Legislation to allow Tennessee gun carry permit holders to pack firearms in public parks is on its way to Gov. Bill Haslam, who has never indicated he’s much of a fan of it.

Whether he will veto it is one of the big outstanding questions of this legislative session.

In Haslam’s view, the issue is not so much about the Second Amendment but “property rights” for local governments. The governor argues that local governments should be granted authority to make their own rules with respect to people carrying guns — or being banned from carrying guns — on locally owned and managed lands.

Advocates of gun-control tend to be more wary, particularly in urban areas, of giving even permit-holders a legal pass to carry firearms in the presence of children, especially when the youngsters are gathered for school functions. They argue that “common sense” limitations on firearms possession is well within the scope of legitimate local governance.

That is in fact a philosophical question that goes to the center of the debate over guns-in-parks. The Tennessee Constitution declares that the General Assembly “shall have power, by law, to regulate the wearing of arms with a view to prevent crime.”

Last week when the Senate voted for final passage on the guns-in-parks legislation, Sen. Frank Niceley, a Strawberry Plains Republican who sponsored the 2009 measure that first allowed permit-holding gun-owners to carry in state-owned, questioned whether the local opt-out provision he supported back then is really even permissible. When Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen, who’d been mulling a veto, ended up signing the law, he urged local elected leaders “to use the opt-out provisions of this bill to remove parks from its effect where they are located close to schools and other places where large numbers of children gather.”

The Senate sponsor of the current legislation, John Stevens of Huntingdon, said on the floor last week that in his view indeed the state’s foundational document “does not give us the authority to delegate that power (to regulate firearms possession) to the locals.”

That issue has long rankled gun-rights advocates like John Harris, executive director of the Tennessee Firearms Association. Harris is pretty lukewarm on the final version of the guns-in-parks legislation that the House and Senate agreed to in a “conference committee” last week.

Like some of the Democrats who voted against the measure and criticized its ambiguities and the manner in which it was passed, Harris said it raises just as much legal uncertainty as lawmakers are purporting it to address.

On April 16, the final version of House Bill 995 passed the Senate 26-6 and 62-25 in the House, where Republican Speaker Beth Harwell joined the group of mostly Democratic lawmakers voting against it. It overrides gun prohibitions in state parks for permittees, but declares that if a public school function is ongoing in the “immediate vicinity” of the area, then the gun owner must vacate the premises.

“Does it move in the right direction? Yeah, I guess it does because it is a little better than where we were,” Harris said of the legislation. “But does it meet the test of whether the average police officer, citizen, judge and district attorney all agree on what the law means? No, it fails miserably on that.”

Harris said he won’t be surprised — and for that matter won’t be terribly disappointed — if Gov. Haslam vetoes the bill. In an emailed statement to the group’s membership on Friday, Harris wrote that while “TFA sees (legislative passage of the guns-in-parks bill) as at best an incremental step on a path that is decades old,” he also believes “it creates more confusion.”

The true root of the problem is that the Legislature has made a practice of ignoring the state constitution’s actual language on the matter, he said. Only the Legislature has the authority to regulate the wearing of weapons and only with defensible justification that restrictions it passes are aiding in crime prevention, said Harris.

“It is what we call a ‘non-delegable duty,’” he said.

Harris noted that the Tennessee Supreme Court wrote in an 1871 case that the General Assembly must lay out a rational justification for limiting the carrying of arms that has “well defined relation to the prevention of crime.”

Harris questions whether any legitimate justification for limiting firearms possession in parks or on school grounds has ever been convincingly articulated by gun-control advocates in the Tennessee Legislature.

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