Guns haven't changed state parks

Guns haven't changed state parks

September 12th, 2010 by Andy Sher in Politics Local

NASHVILLE - In the 15 months since Tennessee handgun-carry permit holders got the right to go armed in state parks, two gun-related incidents have been reported at state facilities and neither resulted in violence, officials said.

"I am pleasantly surprised," said Tennessee Environment and Conservation Commissioner Jim Fyke, who in 2009 lobbied against the so-called "guns in parks" bill. "I believed that it was not a good idea."

The legislation, which took effect in late June 2009, allowed permit holders to go armed in all 53 state parks and 81 state natural areas. The bill included local parks but allowed local governments to opt out. Many, such as Chattanooga, did just that.

Fyke said the law "has not been disruptive" for the most part.

A "major" exception, he said, involved a Dec. 20, 2009, incident in which rangers at Radnor Lake State Park in Nashville stopped Leonard Embody, who had an AK-47-like handgun strapped over his shoulder.

They detained Embody nearly three hours before releasing him without charges after determining he had a lawful carry permit and a legal weapon.

"That was the most alarming case," Fyke said. "That scared a lot of people at Radnor Lake."

Embody later was stopped by police in the wealthy Nashville enclave of Belle Meade while openly carrying another pistol, according to news accounts. State Safety Department officials later suspended his carry permit, a spokesman said.

Fyke said the other park case involved a pistol found at Hiwassee State Scenic River's Gee Creek campground in Polk County.

"A lady left a pink handgun on the back of a commode," Fyke said. "We found it. She was cited. I think they threw it out of court. But the point was, a kid or someone else could have come in there."

Department spokeswoman Tisha Calabrese-Benton later confirmed the number of incidents.

During debate on the bill in 2009, proponents argued permit holders needed to be able to protect themselves on state property. But Fyke said then that crimes against people were rare in Tennessee parks and the measure was unneeded.

The law's main House sponsor, Rep. Frank Niceley, R-Strawberry Plains, said he is "really not surprised" by the few problems.

"Everybody predicted all these shootouts," Nicely said. "What they miss is we're talking about law-abiding citizens here. We're not talking about crooks."

Rep. Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga, noted he had been in "favor of allowing people with permits to carry in state parks."

But he noted he also "voted to make sure that the local governments had the option of opting in or opting out" for local parks.

McCormick said he hears more talk from constituents about the so-called "guns in bars" law that allows permit holders to go armed in places that sell alcohol as long as they don't drink and the establishment does not post signs banning weapons.

Rep. JoAnne Favors, D-Chattanooga, voted against the guns-in-parks bill.

"We have armed guards there in the parks, and I just do not feel they should be there because we have so many unstable individuals," she said.

Reciprocal agreements allow permit holders in other states to carry guns in Tennessee parks, Favors noted. And, she said, guns don't need to be around children.

While there have been no violent incidents in state parks, nine Tennessee permit holders have been involved in 12 shooting deaths since 2008, according to news accounts cited by the Violence Policy Center, a Washington, D.C.-based group critical of carry permits.

Eight holders were charged by police, according to the center's website. The ninth was a suicide, the website said.

Earlier this summer in Shelby County, a 60-year-old man was convicted of second-degree murder after he shot another man in a dispute over their parked vehicles.

Tennessee has issued nearly 340,000 handgun-carry permits since 1996. As of July 1, 293,431 Tennesseans held valid handgun permits, according to the Department of Safety's website.

Niceley said he believes the presence of permit holders overall has helped reduce crime. Statistically speaking, he said, the number of shootings by permit holders is quite low.

Contact Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com or 615-255-0550.