NASHVILLE - Any Tennessean who can legally have a firearm would be able to carry a handgun openly with no need for any state-issued permit under a bill that whizzed through the Senate on Tuesday.
The bill passed 25-2. The House version remains in the chamber's Budget Subcommittee and there is some disagreement among lawmakers about whether it has enough votes to pass the panel.
Sen. Mae Beavers' bill would apply to anyone so long as they are not legally prohibited from having a firearm. It excludes felons who have not had their voting rights restored.
"Requiring Tennesseans to pay for and obtain a permit to publicly carry a handgun in all forms, including openly and while in a motor vehicle -- current Tennessee law -- converts the right to carry a handgun into a privilege," Beavers said in a floor speech.
Existing state law requires a handgun-carry permit to carry a gun, whether it is "open carry" or concealed.
Handgun-carry permits include taking a certified gun safety training course, a criminal-background check and a $115 fee. None of those apply in Beavers' bill, sponsored in the House by Rep. Micah Van Huss, R-Jonesborough.
Those requirements remain in place for conceal carry but would not apply to someone who visibly wears a weapon in a holster or stuffs it in their pocket, which is known as "open carry."
John Harris, executive director of the Tennessee Firearms Association who has pushed open carry for years, was delighted by the Senate's action and immediately urged his members to contact House members.
"Right now, your urgent action is needed to see this bill all the way through to becoming a law before they kill it for the year," Harris said in an e-mail blast to the group's members. "Unfortunately, several weak-kneed Republicans in the state House ... are preventing this bill from coming to the floor for a full vote."
Voting for the bill were Sens. Bo Watson, R-Chattanooga; Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga; Mike Bell, R-Riceville; Janice Bowling, R-Tullahoma; and Ken Yager, R-Harriman.
In other legislative action Tuesday:
Gov. Bill Haslam's school voucher proposal, which would affect Hamilton County schools, is headed for a Senate floor vote after passing the Senate Finance Committee.
Members approved the revised measure on an 8-2 vote. The bill was delayed in the House Budget Subcommittee.
Haslam had tried to limit the proposal to low-income families whose children attend the bottom 5 percent of the state's lowest-performing public schools. Last year, he even jerked the bill from final consideration when senators sought to expand it.
But this year Haslam finally agreed to expand the bill, which would allow the use of public money to pay for vouchers to send students to private or religious schools.
If there aren't enough students from the bottom 5 percent of schools to fill the initial 5,000 slots statewide, low-income families from other schools would be eligible in the five currently affected counties.
By year four of the program, 20,000 students could be going to private schools at public expense at an average cost of $6,400 per year.
Senate Minority Leader Jim Kyle, D-Memphis, objected to the bill, saying that vouchers will compete with public charter schools already greatly expanded by Haslam. All are drawing money away from traditional public schools, complained Kyle, asking where Tennessee public education is headed.
"We don't seem to have an end game," Kyle said. "We're starting down the road without knowing where we're going to end up."
Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman said the state's lowest-performing schools, which have or will be placed in the state's Achievement School District, are "not afraid of the competition."
Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris, R-Collerville, who is carrying the governor's bill, agreed with Kyle that there "has to be an end game.
"But," Norris added, "there also has to be a beginning."
The bill passed 8-2 with Kyle abstaining.
Take that, United Nations: Tennessee Republican legislators don't need you around observing their elections anyhow.
Senators in the GOP-run chamber on Tuesday sent Gov. Bill Haslam a measure aimed at preventing U.N. election monitors from coming into the state. The bill previously passed the House.
The bill passed with no debate. Its sponsor, Sen. Frank Niceley, R-Strawberry Plains, said "this is a one-sentence bill" and proceeded to read it.
"Any representative of the United Nations appearing without a treaty ratified by the United States Senate stating that the United Nations can monitor elections in this state, shall not monitor elections in this state," the bill says.
It passed 23-2.
The bill passed the House earlier on a 75-20 vote. The measure's sponsor, Rep. Micah Van Huss, R-Jonesborough, said at the time "I don't believe it's their (U.N.'s) jurisdiction to monitor us," he said in a floor speech.
A different version of the bill passed last year. Tea Party lawmakers pushed the measure after a U.N.-affiliated group in 2012 sent two observers to Nashville to monitor elections as part of a program to see if Tennessee's new photo ID requirement impacted voting.
Contact staff writer Andy Sher at email@example.com or 615-255-0550.