A new bill making its way through the state legislature may prevent criminals from being the only people with concealed weapons in restaurants that serve alcohol, but some bartenders fear that guns won't make their businesses any safer and may pose a threat themselves.
The new bill, sponsored by Sen. Doug Jackson, D-Dickson, would change the current legislation so that those with permits to carry concealed firearms would be able to keep their pistols stowed away in their purse or jacket while dining out at restaurants with a bar, provided they don't drink any alcohol themselves.
Of the 48 states that issue permits for carrying concealed weapons, 34 have laws that allow people to carry them into alcohol-serving establishments. Tennessee has issued permits since establishing requirements for carrying concealed weapons in 1997.
"We now have more than 185,000 Tennesseans that possess handgun carrying permits," Jackson says. "Since we passed the handgun permit carry law, we have not had any problems. We have states all across the country who have permit laws. They're not experiencing any problems either."
Jackson, whose district covers Dickson, Giles, Hickman, Humphreys, Lawrence, and Lewis counties, says he expects the law to pass through state government by the end of February. It already passed the Senate Judiciary Committee by a vote of 8-1, with the lone vote in opposition coming from Sen. Beverly Marrero, a Memphis Democrat.
"The law-abiding citizen is not a problem," Jackson says. "The heart of this issue isn't about guns and bars."
But the issue of mixing guns and alcohol is particularly relevant in Knoxville, where a recent restaurant shooting left one man dead and another injured. A customer at the Kingston Pike location of Hooters, David Rudd, fired into the restaurant on December 28, killing Stacey Sherman, of Appelgate, Mich., and wounding assistant manager Kris Key. Rudd, who had a history of mental illness and criminal activity, was later shot to death by police.
"You take the incident at Hooters. You had a deranged individual not lawfully carrying a gun," Jackson says. "People who want to break the law couldn't care less what the statute is."
Jackson acknowledges that on the surface allowing concealed weapons into restaurants serving alcohol may sound like a bad idea, but "when you dig deeper into the issue it reveals that what we have on the books today makes no sense."
It does make sense to some people in the restaurant industry who say they would rather not mix their cocktails with loaded weapons. Laura Taylor, acting manager at Green Hills Grille in Bearden, says she doesn't think the law is a good idea, especially if it becomes the restaurant's responsibility to make sure people carrying a gun have a permit, and then make sure they are not drinking while having the gun on them.
"How are you supposed to know?" she asks. "Are you going to have to check people at the door to see if they have a firearm on them?"
Jackson says law-abiding citizens with concealed weapons are part of the solution to a less violent society. He cited the Luby's Cafeteria shooting on Oct. 16, 1991, in Killeen, Texas, as evidence of the need for guns in the hands of citizens.
Texas State Rep. Suzanna Gratia Hupp was having lunch at the cafeteria that day when George Jo Hennard drove his pick-up truck into the restaurant and murdered 23 people before killing himself. Hupp, by following the laws at the time, had left her gun in her car when she went inside. It's a decision she has said she regrets, especially since two of Hennard's victims were Hupp's parents. Texas has since changed its laws, and would have allowed Hupp to bring in her gun into Luby's today.
In Memphis recently, a man began shooting into cars on a busy street, Jackson says. Two brothers with permits to carry weapons got out of their car and held the man at gun point until the police arrived.
"How many lives did they save?" Jackson asks. "Violence is a part of our society and it's all around us. When seconds count the police are only minutes away. When we create gun-free zones the only thing we are assuring anyone is that law-abiding citizens are not going to be armed."
Jackson says it's an issue of the right to defend ourselves against those who want to harm us, or to help protect other innocent people if an altercation arises that warrants the use of a gun to be resolved.
"Self-defense is a fundamental right," Jackson says. "It's as fundamental as the right to breathe. You have the right to have the means to defend yourself."
The law also prevents permit holders from bringing in their guns if the establishment prohibits firearms. Jackson says he wants people who are currently taking their firearms into restaurants like Cracker Barrel and McDonald's that don't serve alcohol to be able to carry them into places like O'Charleys and Ruby Tuesday that do; an amendment states that the businesses must derive at least half their income from the sale of food.
Dan Goss, one of the managers at the Downtown Grille & Brewery on Gay Street, says he has mixed feelings about the issue: He supports the right to bear arms, but he doesn't believe it's always necessary, or always a good idea to carry them.
"In a place that's serving alcohol, I'm not sure if that's needed," Goss says. The carrying of guns should be regulated where alcohol is served, the same way it's regulated at places like the courthouse, he says.
The presence of a gun makes his staff and guests uncomfortable, says Goss. There have been times when officers in their street clothes were carrying a gun, which is legal, and Goss had to approach them to find out why the weapon was being carried.
Ronnie Hart, President and CEO of the Tennessee Restaurant Association, declined to comment for the organization: "We have no position on that legislation."