published Sunday, July 19th, 2009

Speaker supports 'opt out' provision

NASHVILLE -- Tennessee cities and counties should remain free to "opt out" their parks from the impact of a new law that lets handgun-carry permit holders go armed in federal, state and local parks, state House Speaker Kent Williams said.

"I'm not for taking away their right to opt out," the Republican lawmaker from Elizabethton said. "I don't like the federal government mandating laws on the state, and I'm not a big fan of mandating things on local governments."

Speaker Williams' comments came during a wide-ranging interview with state Capitol newspaper reporters last week.

During the interview, the speaker strongly defended Tennessee's so-called guns-in-bars law, which took effect last week. Concerns about the law, he said, are getting "blown out of proportion."

He vowed to fight any efforts next year to repeal the measure. Gov. Phil Bredesen, who vetoed the bill but was overriden, earlier in the week called the new law a "monster."

The law allows permit holders to go armed in restaurants selling alcohol as well as bars and nightclubs -- provided the permit holder does not drink and the establishment does not post signs banning guns. Nashville restaurateurs are challenging the law in court.

A restaurateur himself, Speaker Williams said handgun-carry permit holders have been able to bring loaded firearms into his Elizabethton establishment for nearly 15 years because it does not sell alcohol.

"I've never seen a gun in there," he said.

But the speaker and governor appear to see eye to eye on the guns-in-parks law. Gov. Bredesen told reporters last week he would oppose any gun lobby efforts to gut the provision when lawmakers return in January.

"The only reason that I found guns-in-parks even marginally acceptable was the fact that it did have that opt-out clause, which I thought a lot of particularly urban and suburban counties were going to feel was important," the governor said.

"These parks have an awful lot of kids in them, and I understand completely the motivation as to why somebody would want to prohibit guns in the parks," he said.

Both laws are among 18 gun-related bills that passed the General Assembly in the session that ended June 18. Some of the proposals had been blocked for years until Rep. Williams became speaker in January with the votes of all 49 Democrats.

A number of cities and counties around the state are choosing to opt out before the new guns-in-parks law goes into effect Sept. 1 for local governments. Among them are Chattanooga and Hamilton County governments.

But the moves have angered gun-rights advocates. Tennessee Firearms Association President John Harris said his group is seriously considering pushing the General Assembly next year to eliminate the opt-out provision.

"Largely because of the trend that we're seeing with so many local governments opting out almost in ministerial fashion wthout actually looking at the issues and deciding whether or not the (state) constitutional restrictions justify closing a particular park," said Mr. Harris, whose group along with the NRA pressed for the measure.

SEEKING SECOND TERM

Rep Williams said if he is re-elected to District 4 in 2010, he would seek a second term as speaker.

"I've enjoyed it. I think we've done some good things," he said.

He also said he hopes to be accepted again as a Republican.

As then-Tennessee Republican Party chairwoman, Robin Smith invoked party rules earlier this year and declared Speaker Williams could not run as a Republican again because she said he deceived fellow Republicans and allowed Democrats to make him speaker over a Republican colleague.

"I hope to be in the Republican primary in August," Speaker Williams said. "But if that doesn't happen, it doesn't happen. I didn't take myself out of the party, and I can't put myself back in. I don't think anyone can argue that I'm not a Republican."

The speaker said he thinks his decision to evenly split membership of committees and subcommitees as well as chairmanships worked well.

He said this strategy did not lead to gridlock as some contended. The General Assembly this year passed 611 bills that became public chapters. His staff provided historical information showing 600 bills became public chapters in 2008, 604 became public chapters in 2007 and 514 became public chapters in 2006.

about Andy Sher...

Andy Sher is a Nashville-based staff writer covering Tennessee state government and politics for the Times Free Press. A Washington correspondent from 1999-2005 for the Times Free Press, Andy previously headed up state Capitol coverage for The Chattanooga Times, worked as a state Capitol reporter for The Nashville Banner and was a contributor to The Tennessee Journal, among other publications. Andy worked for 17 years at The Chattanooga Times covering police, health care, county government, ...

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