NASHVILLE - Critics of Tennessee's guns-in-bars law say last week's arrest of its primary state House champion on charges of DUI and possessing a gun while intoxicated should serve as a warning to gun advocates seeking to expand areas where handgun-carry permit holders can go armed.
"I hope this would energize all the folks who stood up against it," said Ladd Everitt, spokesman for the Washington-based Coalition to Stop Gun Violence. "I can't imagine it wouldn't. It's so utterly ridiculous."
But Second Amendment proponents in Tennessee say nothing doing.
In a state that at last count has issued 339,000 handgun-carry permits since 1996, legislative advocates say the arrest of House State and Local Government Committee Chairman Curry Todd, R-Collierville, won't deter them.
"Nobody's saying should we should shut down all the alcohol laws," said Sen. Stacey Campfield, R-Knoxville. "Nobody's really talking about that. They're all talking about suddenly we need to shut down all the gun laws instead of all the alcohol laws."
Campfield said he doesn't "see any reason to stop just because one person made a bad move. I really don't see how it was related to the gun itself except he was in the vehicle. Why should you stop pushing forward with constitutional freedoms?"
He quipped that he remains "gun-ho" about his own legislation that would allow professors and other employees at universities and colleges to go armed if they have permits.
Another Campfield bill would allow workers to store their weapons in locked vehicles while parked on company parking lots, despite an employer's objection.
Todd, 63, was stopped by police as his GMC Envoy was traveling 60 mph in an area where a 40 mph speed limit was posted.
An affidavit says he failed a roadside sobriety test and refused to take a breath-alcohol test. A loaded .38-caliber gun was found in a holster, which the affidavit says was "stuffed" between the driver's seat and the vehicle's center console.
A former Memphis policeman, Todd told officers he had had two alcoholic drinks. It was not known where he consumed them. The law he helped pass prohibits permit holders from drinking in a bar or restaurant with their gun.
He faces charges of DUI, possessing a handgun while intoxicated and violating Tennessee's implied consent law by refusing to submit to a Breathalyzer test.
Following his arrest, Todd issued a statement saying he was "deeply sorry" but declined additional comment on advice of his attorney.
Todd subsequently resigned his chairmanship of a Republican firearms task force. House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga, has said he will decide over the weekend whether to continue the group.
"I was really hoping the economy would be roaring back by now, and it's not," McCormick said of his reasoning. "I think people want us to focus more on economic development and jobs and leave some of the other issues to the side for the time being.
"This is a timely opportunity to do that with the gun task force," McCormick said. "I don't think we need to push those issues right now."
The guns-in-bars bill initially passed in 2009 and was vetoed by then-Gov. Phil Bredesen. Lawmakers easily overrode the veto, but a judge later ruled it unconstitutionally vague.
In 2010, Todd and proponents addressed the judge's concerns with new legislation that included bars and nightclubs.
Confronting critics, Todd said on the bill's final passage that "these are permit holders who are upstanding citizens in this community, and I think that they have a right to carry if they choose and desire. They cannot drink - period."
Rep. Tommie Brown, D-Chattanooga, was among lawmakers who argued against the law, which allows permit holders to go armed in establishments selling alcohol provided they do not drink and the business does not post signs banning guns from the premises.
"I have only four words to say," Brown said of Todd's arrest. "I rest my case."
Asked to elaborate, she said, "I would hope this would give us all pause to take a deep breath and think about this because we never know what circumstances we might find ourselves in."
Gun advocates argue the point from a different perspective. They say people have a right to protect themselves when in public. But national gun control advocates point to several killings involving domestic or other disputes in which permit holders have been charged with murder.
Efforts to reach Tennessee Firearms Association Executive Director John Harris were unsuccessful Friday. But earlier in the week, Harris told The Tennessean newspaper in Nashville that "we don't throw the Bible out just because preachers make mistakes."
On the group's website, Second Amendment advocates fretted about the impact of Todd's arrest.
"The reason he was stopped won't matter one iota to the anti-gun crowd," wrote one poster, who identified himself as "PapaB." "The fact that he might have been drunk and had a gun in the car is all that'll matter. Remember the rhetoric while trying to pass the guns in restaurants legislation? Dodge City lawlessness, nightly shootouts across the state, the OK Corral, dogs and cats living together, women and children being shot dead in the streets.
"To add insult to injury, this isn't just an HCP [permit] holder, nor is it just a TN lawmaker with an HCP," PapaB continued. "This is the TN lawmaker with an HCP that pushed for what they call the 'guns in bars law.' They'll use this to beat us like a red-headed stepchild. ... Logic doesn't work with that group, they deny its existence."
Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, the Republican Senate speaker, told reporters last week that if Todd is convicted, "he needs to be punished to the fullest extent of the law."
But he, too, took issue with critics' efforts to use Todd's case to attack the law allowing permit holders to go armed in establishments selling alcohol.
"Using that same analogy, then he broke the law driving a car, too, and I guess we need to take all cars away from people," Ramsey said.
Brown, however, said that when it comes to guns and alcohol that "at the end of the day we're all human and that's the point. ... We all stand the chance of making that case and unfortunately, it can sometimes be fatal. In this instance it was not."
She said if someone of Todd's "stature and his tremendous influence and his power can find that moment where he was this vulnerable, therefore we, the rest of the unsuspecting public become vulnerable. What about the other people out there? That's what makes this so dangerous."