Knoxville Bar Owners Are Not So Gun Crazy

One month after the "Guns in Bars" bill passed, few local drinking establishments are allowing them

As in nearly all other culture wars, the most effective arguments both for and against the Tennessee Legislature's Guns-in-Bars bill—now law—were supported at base by un- or at least half-truths. They were not all-out fabrications so much as exaggerations or omissions used to manipulate the public.

On the anti-side, we had lots of imagery suggesting that upon the enactment of the bill the state would descend into a chaotic, Old West-like blood orgy, wherein corner watering holes would become scenes of nightly shootouts and militia meetings, the first steps toward the state's eventual secession from the Union. But last week marked a month since the law officially went on the books, and the world appears no more violent than it was before. In fact, in East Tennessee we've only seen one major incident of gun violence inside a bar since the law took effect. It was a fatal shooting inside a karaoke bar in Monroe County late last month, but the suspect, Josh Anderson, isn't a permit holder, and thus was carrying illegally even under the new law.

There did, however, prove to be a seed of related truth in all that apocalyptic rhetoric. We may not have actually re-entered the 19th century here, but we have become the target of national derision and mockery as major news outlets and blogs highlighted our Legislature's brave strides in expanding Second Amendment rights to places where people go to dull their inhibitions. This despite the vocal objections of Gov. Bredesen, statewide law enforcement officials (including Knoxville Police Chief Sterling P. Owen IV), and many of the business owners who would be affected.

"That gun law was asinine," says one such person, Michelle Mapstone, owner of Smokey's Sports Pub and Grill in North Knoxville, which advertises itself on its website as a place with a "fun-filled friendly atmosphere." Mapstone says she didn't even know about the debate leading up to the passage of the law, but when a customer inquired about it, she was shocked that there was any support for it. "I find it hard to believe that anyone would allow guns into their bar," she says.

That brings us to a half-truth on the pro-side, contained in the political name it was given: "The Restaurant Carry Bill," which doesn't include any of the important concepts addressed by the bill itself, namely "gun," "handgun," "concealed weapon," "alcohol," or "bar." Everyone called it the Guns-in-Bars bill, of course, but the spirit of "restaurant carry" lived on. Pro-side politicians even got to slam the more popular name as trashy liberal spin. This is not about bars, we were told. This is intended to apply to restaurants where alcohol is sold. Restaurants can only be classified as such if at least 51 percent of their sales come from food. This is about Ruby Tuesday.

Amazingly, those statements—excepting the last, which is a sort of half-truth by omission—are all true. As far as state law is concerned, there are no "bars." Every place you'd call a bar is actually legally classified as a restaurant. As for the food thing, it is legally true that every "restaurant" must make at least 51 percent of its money in "food" sales, where food is defined as anything you eat or drink except for "alcohol." If it doesn't, its liquor license can be revoked by the state Alcoholic Beverage Commission.

However, since state law defines "alcoholic beverage" as anything containing more than 5 percent alcohol by weight—a requirement that leaves out Budweiser, Bud Lite, Miller, and almost all other popular American beers as well as many imports, microbrews, ice beers, even malt liquors—the ABC has no regulatory authority over beer sales. Beer, in this case, is considered "food." (According to statistics from the National Institute on Alcoholism and Alcohol Abuse, Tennesseans drank 125 million gallons of beer in 2006, compared to 7.4 million gallons of wine or 6.7 million gallons of liquor.)

As far as the average citizen is concerned, there are in fact bars that deal primarily in alcohol sales in the state of Tennessee. Since our state's lawmakers decided to pass the second-most-lax restaurant carry law in the country—behind Arizona's, which also passed this year and doesn't even have the vague "one meal a day, five days a week" provision ours has—they can let guns in.

There are, of course, businesses in the area that can fairly be described as more-restaurant-than-bar, like, for example Maryville-based national chain Ruby Tuesday, which, according to corporate spokesperson Rick Johnson, is not enforcing a ban, though Johnson stresses that "it has not been an issue yet." Same goes for restaurants owned by Connor Concepts—which owns all 12 Chop House locations, Regas, and Connors Steak and Seafood—according to a spokesperson for the company who declined to answer any further questions. On the other hand, a member of the management staff from local restaurant group Aubrey's (which has six eponymous locations and owns popular eateries Sunspot, Bistro by the Tracks, Barley's, and Stefano's) says that the company is in the process of putting up the signs to enforce a ban at all of its restaurants.

Now that we've reached the one-month mark on Guns-in-Bars, Metro Pulse felt an informal, unscientific survey of area bars was in order.

We wanted to know, basically, how it's going for these businesses, whether or not they're opting in or out of state law, and how they're dealing with it. The question, then, became, what is a "bar" as opposed to a "restaurant where alcohol is sold?" And for that, we turned to the phone book. It turns out that, absent any legal "bar" or "tavern" classification requirement, there are 43 area businesses that at some point chose to classify themselves as "bars," "sports bars," "taverns," or "pubs."

What we found is that the less-than-one-year-old phone book is already woefully out of date. Due to closure, phone line disconnection, or just some mysterious aversion that some proprietors seem to have to the phone, we were only able to reach 29 bars.

Out of those, though, Metro Pulse found that only five are expressly permitting legal gun owners to bring their weapons in. Two more whose employees said that they do not intend to allow guns in—Fort Sanders Yacht Club and Rick's Place—still actually are, since they have not as of this writing posted a sign indicating a ban.

"There is specific wording that is supposed to be followed and posted in those signs," says Virginia Stooksbury of the ABC's Knoxville office. "It's not a state-issued sign, but we are giving business owners copies of that wording."

Only one bar we contacted, Susie Q's on Maryville Pike in South Knoxville, is allowing guns with any amount of enthusiasm.

"Hell, yes! As long as they've got a permit, I've got no problem with people bringing their guns in here," says Susie Q's owner John Rhinehart. He is not speaking directly into the phone, but he can be heard from across the room. Rhinehart is being questioned through an unnamed intermediary who, when asked, tells me that he is familiar with the "guns-in-laws bar."

Another bar owner told us that she is not enforcing a ban, though she is not advertising that fact and asked that we please refrain from publishing her business' name in our newspaper.

Others are even less keen on the law and are not shy about it.

"That actually came up in an argument recently during our manager's meeting," says Lakeside Tavern manager Robert Bowlby, who says that the consensus of Lakeside's management staff is pro-ban. "The higher-ups are taking a look at it, and they're trying to determine if a sign would run people off."

Bowlby says that, in the interim, he is concerned about how to enforce the law's limits. A semi-upscale place like Lakeside, for obvious reasons of decorum, is not going to be frisking its customers or asking for proof of legal possession. So right now Bowlby doesn't even know who is carrying a concealed gun.

"It hasn't come up yet, but here's how we have decided to handle it: If someone happens to see someone else carrying a gun, and they tell us they're uncomfortable, I'm going to just politely ask that [the gun holder] please put it back in his car. I'm hoping they'll just be reasonable about it," Bowlby says. "God, I don't want to have that conversation."

Twenty-two of the 29 bar owners and managers we surveyed have chosen to avoid that conversation altogether, banning guns as an official policy, complete with the sign. When asked, most employees matter-of-factly admit having the ban. Some, like Mapstone, indicate they have stronger feelings about it. Don Morton of Don R. Sports Bar in Corryton says, "No way. I'm the owner and I ain't letting nobody carry a gun in here."

Marie Owens of Marie's Olde Towne Tavern downtown says "Absolutely not!" Then there's Christopher Hamblin, bartender at the Longbranch Saloon on the Cumberland Avenue Strip, who almost seems to see publicizing his bar's ban as something of an advertising strategy.

"No, we are absolutely not allowing guns in here," says Hamblin, who adds that signs have been posted throughout the building. "Please, please make a point of saying that we're not."