By ERIK SCHELZIG
NASHVILLE - Bill Haslam's rivals for Tennessee's Republican gubernatorial nomination are finding ammunition in the Knoxville mayor's position on guns.
Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey of Blountville and U.S. Rep. Zach Wamp of Chattanooga, both vocal supporters of gun rights, are targeting Haslam's support for a Knoxville City Council vote earlier this week that keeps in place a ban on handguns in city parks, playgrounds and sports fields.
"Once again Mayor Haslam comes down on the wrong side of our Second Amendment rights guaranteed in the Constitution," Wamp said in a statement.
The state Legislature this year passed a law that allows handgun carry permit holders to bring their weapons into city and county parks. But the law gives local governments the power to opt out.
About 70 cities and counties have decided against allowing people with permits to go armed in local parks.
Haslam supported the ban at the council meeting because it could be worse for gun owners if "we monkey with the situation we have right now," because changing the ordinance might lead to criminal penalties for violators. Knoxville is the only large city in Tennessee without criminal penalties for bringing guns into parks, he said.
Campaign consultant Tom Ingram said he expects Haslam's opponents to "try to obscure that and some other things that are as clear as the nose on your face." But Ingram said voters should see through any attacks on Haslam over gun rights.
"People who pay attention and understand that he is a staunch advocate for the Second Amendment - and ignore people who mislead and distort - will be fine with his position," Ingram said.
Haslam has been publicly refining his position on guns as he makes his statewide race.
Earlier this year, he withdrew from the Mayors Against Illegal Guns group for what he called a departure from its original mission of fighting gun crimes in urban areas.
"As soon as that came to light he resigned, as did many other mayors," Ingram said.
Ramsey spokesman Brad Todd said gun rights are a "big issue" for Republican primary voters.
"It's a long campaign," Todd said. "I'm sure a lot of people will have questions for him around the state. He's going to have a lot of explaining to do."
Ramsey was an original sponsor of Tennessee's handgun carry law, and Todd said his consistent stance on guns is what will appeal to voters.
"He doesn't try to tell one audience on thing and tell another audience another," Todd said. "He supports Second Amendment rights, period."
Wamp has made gun rights a staple of his campaign speeches, including a statement that if President Barack Obama were to issue an order to confiscate guns, "We will meet him at the state line."
"Limiting the rights of citizens who have gone through the training and permitting process required to legally carry a gun in order to protect themselves and their families - while letting the criminals run free - makes little sense to me," Wamp said.
Haslam's campaign raised $3.8 million in the first half of the year, compared with Ramsey's $1.3 million and Wamp's $1.2 million.
A fourth Republican candidate, Memphis prosecutor Bill Gibbons, raised about $412,000. Gibbons has expressed reservations about another new Tennessee law that allows permit holders to carry their guns into bars and restaurants that serve alcohol.