NASHVILLE -- Two gun-rights groups have their sights trained on an amended House bill that lets handgun-carry permit holders go armed in restaurants selling alcohol but bans their weapons from establishments that derive less than 50 percent of their gross sales from food.
"We will not go along with it," said John Harris, executive director of the Tennessee Firearms Association, whose organization is urging members to call lawmakers about the bill. "Our thinking is these 50 percent rules that have been tried over the past 15 to 20 years have always failed."
National Rifle Association spokeswoman Rachel Parsons said that, while NRA legal and legislative staffers haven't completed their review of the amended bill, "on the surface of this amendment, it looks like a nonstarter for the NRA."
The measure is intended as a compromise that would keep guns out of bars, nightclubs and honky-tonks while still allowing permit holders to bring their weapons into restaurants selling alcohol if restaurant owners so choose.
The amended bill now says establishments with less than 50-percent food sales would have to post signs banning guns. Those with food sales above 50 percent could allow permit holders to bring in their guns or they can choose to ban them by posting signs prohibiting them.
Rep. Harry Brooks, D-Knoxville, who has supported a variety of handgun-carry permit bills, attached the amendment Tuesday to a bill sponsored by Rep. Curry Todd, R-Collierville.
House Finance Committee members narrowly approved the amendment, but the amended bill passed on a 20-6 vote with five members abstaining.
"It just says the owner, who will know what his or her sales are, will post the sign if they're not primarily a food establishment," Rep. Tindell told colleagues.
Lawmakers battled most of last year's session to pass a law allowing permit holders to go armed in establishments selling alcohol for on-premises consumption.
But the law was thrown out by a Davidson County judge who called it unconstitutionally vague. The judge said that was because it placed the burden on permit holders knowing whether the establishment was meeting the conditions of its liquor-by-the-drink permit at the time they entered.
Restaurants can be licensed by the state if they meet requirements including being open at least three days a week and, the statute says, "if the serving of meals is the principal business conducted each day the restaurant is open."
Lawmakers complain that some establishments are not meeting the requirement.
After the law he sponsored last year was ruled unconstitutional, Rep. Todd this year introduced another plan. It simply says handgun permit holders can go armed in any establishment that sells alcohol for on-premises consumption provided they do not drink and the establishment does not post signs banning guns.
Critics contend it is a true "guns in bars" bill.
Rep. Tindell said Rep. Todd's "fix" this session broadened the idea to include "bars, lounges, clubs, honky-tonks and even locally permitted beer joints. That was not what we promised last year, so I looked for a solution to take us back where we were."
Rep. Todd voiced reservations about Rep. Tindell's amendment, saying he thought it could be "problematic" based on last year's court ruling.
"One thing I think is critical is finding out who will be the enforcement on this. It's on the honors system," Rep. Todd said. "There's no enforcement in there, and that concerns me."
Rep. Tindell said he is willing to listen to Rep. Todd's suggestions.
Sen. Doug Jackson, D-Dickson, the bill's Senate sponsor, had similar questions. He said he hasn't made his mind up whether he will accept the Tindell amendment or not. He characterized it as "a last-minute amendment on a bill that's been in committee for some time" and one that was "considered fairly quickly" by the House.
The Tennessee Firearms Association's Mr. Harris questioned whether the Tindell plan would have unintended impacts on businesses such as theaters that have provisions in state law allowing them to sell alcohol.
Rep. Tommie Brown, D-Chattanooga, said she thought the Tindell amendment improved the bill, but she still opposes it.
The amended bill appears to have addressed at least some concerns raised by restaurants. Nashville restaurateur Randy Rayburn initiated last year's lawsuit. As he watched the Tindell amendment go on Tuesday, he said that he isn't inclined to challenge this one if a few other additions are made.
The original guns-in-bars bill is scheduled for a Senate vote Monday. Sen. Doug Jackson, D-Dickson, said he is looking at whether he will accept the House compromise.
He did question how the amended bill would deal with an establishment that serves just beer. Those are controlled by local governments and not the state.
Chattanooga restaurateur Nick Bowers, who owns the Pickle Barrel restaurant downtown, said his food sales exceed 50 percent. Mr. Bowers, who didn't like last year's law, said he isn't sure he gets the current approach to guns.
"You can bring it (a gun) into a civilized place, but don't bring it into the saloon. OK," he said sarcastically.