NASHVILLE, Tenn. — A gun rights push in Tennessee would give cities and counties an ultimatum: buy metal detectors, hire security guards and check bags at many public buildings, parks and buses; or let people with handgun permits bring in their guns.
The proposal is drawing support from many Republican lawmakers and the NRA, which said it would hold local governments responsible for keeping citizens safe.
The gun control group Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America and some cities think the legislation would give local officials two bad choices, or put them at risk of lawsuits under the bill's expanded protections for gun-rights groups to sue on behalf of individuals who feel slighted by local gun restrictions. They would be eligible for triple attorney's fees.
Charles Swanson, law director for the city of Knoxville, has described the bill as "an attorney's relief act for those representing gun interests." An amendment Wednesday to lower the attorney's fees failed before the House passed the bill in a 70-24 vote.
"We are opposed to the bill because it means we either have to allow people to go armed in buildings and facilities where guns have been restricted or make huge investments of taxpayer money to install unnecessary security equipment and personnel," said Jesse Fox Mayshark, spokesman for Knoxville Mayor Madeline Rogero.
Many other major gun bills have fizzled in firearm-friendly Tennessee this year, including pushes to remove handgun permit requirements or decriminalize not having one.
The Senate is likely to follow with a vote this week or early next. Republican Gov. Bill Haslam, who has only vetoed bills in extremely rare cases, is deferred to the will of the legislature on the amended bill, said spokeswoman Jennifer Donnals.
"The goal here is to ensure that in areas where we're allowing locals and entities to prohibit guns, that they actually aren't there," Rep. William Lamberth, a Cottontown Republican, said of his bill.
Under the proposal, local governments couldn't ban guns on most of their property unless they have at least one security guard at each public entrance to operate a handheld, walkthrough, or other type of metal detector and check people's bags.
Some local facilities could still ban guns without metal detectors and additional security, including: mental health facilities; Department of Children Services offices; libraries; schools; parks used by schools; buildings where judicial proceedings take place; buildings that hold law enforcement agencies; and Head Start facilities.
Lawmakers have resisted efforts to exempt public transit stations and buses from the tougher security requirements. The Tennessee Public Transportation Association, which thinks the bill would also apply to buses, estimated that the new security requirements could cost the four large urban public transit systems $3.8 million in one-time costs and $36 million in yearly costs, while likely throwing off bus scheduling.
"It would be fiscally and operationally impossible," said Jason Spain, Tennessee Public Transportation Association executive director.
Lamberth said the bill wouldn't deal with buses or vehicles.
He said recent shootings at the Music City Central station in Nashville show the need for change at transit facilities.
"It's simply not working to just slap a sign up and expect people to not bring guns into that facility," Lamberth said.
Nashville Mayor Megan Barry has expressed concern about picking between the unfunded security requirements, or allowing guns into facilities, "which could result in dangerous situations that threaten the safety of innocent bystanders," said spokesman Sean Braisted.
Proponents of the bill said it cleans up ambiguity in a 2015 law allowing guns in local parks. After that law passed, Attorney General Herbert Slatery issued an opinion saying private organizations that use the parks for events cannot prevent licensed permit holders from taking weapons into the events.
The bill's supporters criticized the city of Knoxville for claiming that Chilhowee Park, home to the Tennessee Valley Fair, was not a "park" under the 2015 law. The city in January settled one lawsuit by agreeing that people could only bring guns to the facility when events weren't happening, and they would still be prohibited from bringing guns into buildings onsite.
Still, the Tennessee Firearms Association called the metal detector legislation "one of the good but really bad bills."
The group says the bill would put any building with a courtroom inside of it off-limits for handgun permit holders to bring in their guns. Currently, they are banned under state law in the room when court is in session.