NASHVILLE — A National Rifle Association-backed effort to block public access to handgun carry permits goes too far for Republican Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey, one of the top gun rights advocates in the Tennessee General Assembly.
Ramsey told The Associated Press that the ability to scrutinize the identities of people with handgun carry permits strengthens arguments that gun enthusiasts are worthy of carrying loaded firearms in public.
"Having the handgun carry records open actually helps the cause of the Second Amendment," he said in an interview Thursday. "Because people can go look at those and realize that they truly are law-abiding citizens."
Ramsey added, "I encourage people like the press to look through these to figure out whether there's something we're missing. When you don't shine light on something, that's when problems are caused."
Ramsey's position conflicts with the NRA's, which has long called for sealing the records so the public and news media cannot see who has the state-issued permits.
"Members of the media have no business possessing personal information of Tennesseans with handgun carry permits," NRA spokeswoman Stephanie Samford said in an email.
More than 390,000 people have obtained handgun carry permits in Tennessee, or about 8 percent of the eligible population. Ramsey is a chief sponsor this year of a bill to allow permit holders to store their firearms in their vehicles no matter where they are parked. Currently businesses can ban weapons on their property, while schools and colleges can stop students and faculty from keeping guns on campus.
Ramsey has said he is willing to override the property rights concerns raised by the business community because handgun carry permit holders have met vigorous background check and training requirements.
The last serious effort to seal the records in Tennessee passed the House in 2009. But it failed in the Senate amid fears that political groups and gun advocates would no longer be able to access addresses of handgun carry permit holders to add to their mailing lists soliciting contributions.
Freshman state Rep. William Lamberth, R-Gallatin, said he introduced the bill on the urging of a constituent upset that carry permit information had been published on newspaper websites. Lamberth said he had not been contacted by the NRA about the proposal.
"The whole goal of this legislation is to provide more safety and security for our community," Lamberth said in a phone interview.
"Imagine if you had a list of every person with a 60-inch television in their home," he said. "That would be a list burglars would love to have."
While the original version of the bill envisions a blanket ban, Lamberth said he plans to propose a change to allow the Safety Department to respond to requests about whether a specific person holds a permit.
"It allows for a one-name check," Lamberth said. "It doesn't allow for the entire list to get out there under any circumstance."
Ramsey agreed that "it serves no purpose" for news organizations to post searchable databases of handgun carry permit holders online. A website database posted by The Commercial Appeal helped drive the last push to close the list in Tennessee while more recently a suburban New York City newspaper drew angry denunciations when it prepared a map of gun permit holders' homes.
"So I would be in favor of not being able to publish it or mass produce it," Ramsey said. "But at the same time, the records need to stay open."
Sen. Ferrell Haile, R-Gallatin and the co-sponsor of the measure, said he has discussed the matter with Ramsey and that he is still working on what the best language for the legislation will be.
"We're concerned about it being published on a website or in a newspaper," Haile said.