Gun Crazy

The oft-proposed "guns in bars" bill may finally get its show-down in the Tennessee General Assembly

Maybe it should come as no surprise that HB0962/SB1127, the so-called "guns in bars" bill, has a real chance of passing through the state General Assembly this week. After passing 70-26 in the House earlier this month, it passed 26-7 last week in the Senate, which voted to remove a House amendment that would have prevented permit holders from carrying in alcohol-serving restaurants between 11 p.m. and 5 a.m. The Senate went even further, and removed a provision in the original bill that wouldn't have allowed handguns in age-restricted restaurants, despite ongoing objections from law-enforcement officials throughout the state.

"We don't think that alcohol and guns mix well in any situation," says Maggie Duncan, executive director of the Tennessee Association of Police Chiefs, which has opposed the bill.

Certain provisions, however, remain vague. Restaurants must serve at least one "meal" a day, five days a week, and have an "adequate" kitchen. The words in quotations are not defined in the bill's language. Somewhat more specifically, the bill says that one-third of a restaurant's staff must be involved in food service and preparation. On Thursday, the House decides on how or whether to compromise.

"That's not much of a provision," says Duncan. "You know and I know that the new Senate version of this bill covers a lot of places that, while they may serve food, are really more bar than restaurant."

Legislators have been trying to get the bill through for 11 years. Sen. Doug Jackson, a conservative-voting pro-life Democrat from Dickson, himself a permit holder, has defended the bill, noting that 34 other states allow some form of handgun carrying in such restaurants. He calls the bill an extension of Tennesseans' right to "defend" themselves.

"I cannot imagine a more oppressive government mandate than to tell a citizen who has a constitutional right to carry a firearm, ‘Well, you can't really do that. You don't have a right to defend yourself,'" Jackson said during last week's Senate session.

"Guns in Bars" carries with it the usual list of supporters, namely the Tennessee Firearms Association—which has been drumming up a public outcry in frequent "legislative updates" on its website—and of course, the NRA, which spent nearly $20,000 on Tennessee state politicians in 2008 and donated $500 to Jackson's last campaign in 2006.

The Tennessee Public Safety Coalition, which includes Knoxville Police Chief Sterling Owen and members of public-safety groups representing the Tennessee Association of Police Chiefs and Tennessee Sheriff's Association, sent a letter to the state House last year opposing the 2008 House version of the bill.

"Ladies and gentleman, firearms and alcohol do not mix! It makes absolutely no sense to us to allow persons to carry guns into establishments where alcohol-related fights are most likely to occur," said the letter.

Metro Pulse obtained a violent crime report for Knoxville police traffic zones in parts of the city with large numbers of bars and restaurants. The report included downtown and the Old City; the Cumberland Avenue Strip; the West Hills area; and East Knoxville business districts along Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and Magnolia Avenue east of Bertrand Avenue.

All in all, there were only 22 violent crimes in alcohol-serving restaurants in those areas in all of 2008. Those 22 account for about 7.8 percent of the 280 total violent crimes (including murder, rape, sexual assault, assault, and robbery) in those neighborhoods.

That doesn't sound like a whole lot, but when you take into account the frequency with which they occur in some neighborhoods and some bars, the picture seems a little worse. For instance, the downtown and Old City area had 59 violent incidents reported last year. Of those, 14—nearly 24 percent—were reported from the addresses of restaurants serving alcohol. These included nine assaults (five, including at least one stabbing, happened at Club 106's address in the Old City alone), three robberies, and two rapes.

Others, like the Electric Cowboy, had particularly gruesome incidents. Police say 22-year-old Zachary Plemons left 23-year-old Dale Kelly in critical condition with severe trauma to his head after attacking him in the parking lot outside the bar early in the morning on Nov. 3. Plemons was charged with attempted second-degree murder. According to police documents, there had been another assault there the night before.

Some areas fared better, though. The East Knoxville neighborhoods we received information for had the highest number of crimes overall but no incidents of violence in bars.

Near the University of Tennessee campus, only four crimes—three assaults and one robbery—were reported from four different bars, accounting for about 10 percent of the 41 violent crimes reported to KPD in the neighborhood last year.

And in the West Hills neighborhood, only four assaults, of 49 total violent crimes, occurred at bars and restaurants in 2008.

Duncan says she has heard from police chiefs across the state who are concerned about the safety of their men and women on the streets should this bill make it through.

"This is a huge officer-safety issue," Duncan says. "Inadvertently, there's going to be an incident at one of these places."

It seems strange that such a controversial bill—one that pro-gun legislators have been trying and failing to pass since the late 1990s—should pass by such broad margins this time around. It points to a national trend suggesting that Americans have recently grown more and more gun friendly.

More than 3.8 million people—100,000 in this state alone—have tried to buy firearms from major retailers so far this year, according to statistics from the FBI's National Instant Criminal Background Check System. That's a jump from just over 3 million in the first three months of 2008, continuing a trend that began in November of last year, when the FBI recorded 1.5 million background checks, the highest number since it began gathering the statistics in 1998.

Blame it on our "gun-grabbing" president, the inherent paranoia that tends to accompany an economic downturn, looming Armageddon, the Mexican drug wars, or whatever you want—the statistics seem to indicate that this country is arming itself at a faster rate than ever.

What's more, recent surveys indicate that Americans are more lax on gun-control laws than ever before. According to a Gallup poll released at the beginning of this month, only 29 percent of Americans believe that there should be a law banning civilian handgun ownership—the lowest ever in the 50-year history of the poll. Only 49 percent believe that current gun control laws should be stricter—the lowest in the nearly 20-year history of the poll. The most handgun-friendly demographic groups? Southerners and Republicans.

Enter the Tennessee General Assembly, with a Republican majority for the first time since the 1860s. For them, 2009 seems to be the year of the gun.

To demonstrate, go to the Legislature's website and do a bill search on "firearms." Jackson alone has sponsored bills this session that would extend carry rights to national and state parks, as well as allowing permit holders to carry loaded rifles in a car.

Still, Duncan hopes that the state House will stand firm in keeping bans at age-restricted bars, as well as resetting the curfew. She says she'll be talking with House members until the vote on Thursday.

"Whatever it is we'll have to accept it and deal with it," she says. "The train has left the station on this issue. The fact of the matter is that it's an entirely different Legislature this year."