Tennessee's "Guns in Bars" Bill May Finally Get its Show-Down

Why are legislators in the General Assembly supporting it after 11 years?

"We want a clean bill," so says Rachel Parsons of the National Rifle Association, of the piece of state legislation that she keeps calling "the restaurant carry bill."

No doubt it's frustrating to her that everybody else seems insistent on calling SB1127/HB0962 the "guns in bars" bill, which, for the first time in the 11 years it's been up for debate, may have a real chance of passing the Tennessee General Assembly.

To the NRA and other pro-gun-rights advocates, a "clean bill" means one with the fewest restrictions on it, one that would allow Tennessee Carry Permit holders access to any alcohol-serving establishment without curfews or constraints based on any of a restaurant's age-restrictions policies. And it seemed for a moment that they might get it. On April 16, the State Senate voted 26-7 for a version of the bill that removed an April 6 State House amendment that would have prevented permit holders from carrying in alcohol-serving restaurants between 11 p.m. and 5 a.m.

More than that, the Senate went even further, and removed a provision in the original bill that wouldn't have allowed handguns in age-restricted restaurants. When the bill came back to the House on April 23, though, the new version was rejected, albeit by the slimmest of margins, 45-44.

"We're still working on legislators in the House and Senate," says Parsons. "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.

So, right now, "guns in bars" is in limbo, but Sen. Doug Jackson, the pro-gun, conservative-voting Democrat from Dickson who received $500 in NRA money in his last campaign, is expecting a House-Senate conference committee to approve the curfew-free version of the bill as soon as this Thursday.

"I think the Senate amendment was an appropriate action," says Jackson, the original sponsor of the bill. Jackson, a carry permit holder himself, claims that for him it's an issue of "fundamental rights" to defend oneself when put in danger. 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.

And he's been arguing for it despite ongoing protest from law enforcement throughout the state, including the Tennessee Association of Police Chiefs.

"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, even the House version.

"Law enforcement had concerns about allowing carry permits in the first place. They generally have concerns about citizens using their right to keep and bear arms," Jackson says. "There are over 30 states that have similar laws, and the safety record is outstanding. I think that their concerns are not well-founded.

One concern is that removing the ban in age-restricted restaurants and removing the curfew mean that purely alcohol-based businesses will allow weapons inside. Still, 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.

"That's not much of a provision," says Maggie 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."

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.

Parsons and Jackson, however, are quick to point out that no version of the bill would allow people who are drinking to carry in a restaurant, though it would presumably be the restaurant's responsibility to determine if a gun-toting patron is drunk and either ask him to leave or notify the police. And both note that it only applies to Tennessee Handgun Carry Permit holders, the legally armed and trained.

"This only applies to law-abiding citizens," says Jackson.

Similarly, Parsons: "The NRA doesn't support criminal activity. This bill only concerns law-abiding permit carriers"

Both Jackson and Parsons point to the "outstanding safety record" of carry permit holders in the state.

"I've been told that the safety record for permit carriers is better than the safety record for police," Jackson says.

Okay, but sometimes, of course, it's not so great.

Last June, the Tennessee Department of Safety (TDOS) admitted that as many as 532 licensed carriers in the state had their permits renewed even after committing a felony, after checking its carry permit database against the Department of Corrections felon database.

The Associated Press reported over the weekend that nearly 1,200 Tennessee permits have been revoked for criminal offenses in the past few years.

"That's over a four-year period," says Jackson. "That's only about 300 a year."

Still, it's almost as many as TDOS has denied pre-purchase (or prevented) every year. That averages about 405 per year, according to a memo published last year in the Tennessean.

And newspaper reports in the Tennessean and the Memphis Commercial Appeal have found scores more problem permit issuances in the past two years not discovered by the state.

And, even since this legislative session began a few short months ago, some permit holders have proved a PR mess for the "Arm Everyone, Everywhere" wing of the General Assembly:

(1) In February, Cordova permit holder Harry "Ray" Coleman was charged with second-degree murder after allegedly shooting another man in the chest over a parking spot.

(2) Last week, Sevierville man James Jeffrey Allen Jr., a legal gun owner, was arrested and charged with four counts of attempted murder after shooting into a nearby car. He believed the four people in the car had tried to rob his father, James Jeffrey Allen Sr., several hours earlier.

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, have had some particularly troubling incidents, like one last weekend when a brawl broke out among a group of customers. Knoxville police had to call in sheriffs' deputies—and, after finding a "suspicious-looking package," the bomb squad as well—to subdue the situation, ultimately arresting five patrons.

In 2008, 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 of 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.

"Whatever it is we'll have to accept it and deal with it," Duncan 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."