NASHVILLE - A bill on its way to Gov. Phil Bredesen would let state handgun-carry permit holders go armed in any establishment selling alcohol for on-premises consumption.
That includes restaurants, nightclubs, honky-tonks, country clubs and any other place with an alcohol license, including places such as the Tennessee Aquarium in Chattanooga, lawmakers said.
"It's all alcohol for on-premise consumption," said Rep. Harry Tindell, D-Knoxville, who noted that should include the aquarium. "All the premiere resorts, museums, country clubs, the hotels, anything that has a license for on-premise consumption."
House members approved the bill on a 66-31 vote Wednesday. Senators approved the measure last week on a 29-3 vote.
Establishments can post signs banning guns that permit holders are required to obey or face up to a year in jail. A permit holder also would not be allowed to consume alcohol or face losing his license for three years.
Senate Bill 3012 is intended to address a ruling by a Davidson County judge who ruled a similar law passed last year was unconstitutionally vague. That was because it sought to exclude "restaurants" that predominantly serve liquor by the drink and wine in a state that makes no legal distinction between bars and restaurants.
Sponsor Rep. Curry Todd, R-Collierville, said the new bill applies to any establishment with any license to sell alcohol, including state liquor permits and local beer licenses. It has no food requirement. A spokesman for Gov. Phil Bredesen, who vetoed last year's bill only to see it easily overridden, had no comment on what the governor would do.
House members debated at length a compromise amendment from Rep. Tindell. It required owners of establishments with less than 50 percent of their gross annual revenue from food sales the previous year to post signs banning weapons.
Rep. Tindell said his amendment would keep guns from legally being brought into "night clubs, lounges, bars or honky-tonks."
Rep. Joe McCord, R-Maryville, urged lawmakers to back the compromise. Rep. McCord, who is not seeking re-election, said he has had a career "A" rating from the National Rifle Association. But Rep. McCord, who helped push last year's version of the bill, accused the powerful group of going too far with the Todd bill.
"Essentially, the NRA is saying to us, if you don't support and vote for carrying guns in bars, we will not endorse you and in fact will oppose you," said Rep. McCord, noting the "line of reasoning borders on lunacy."
He cautioned lawmakers that he does not want to have to "go to a chamber (of commerce) meeting or meet somebody in the grocery store and try to explain why we are voting for guns in bars.
"No one's right all the time," Rep. McCord said. "The NRA is not right here, and we're not standing up to them. It makes me wonder, what line will we not cross for the NRA? At what point do we say, this is too much?"
Rep. Henry Fincher, D-Cookeville, disagreed, saying, "we've made a choice in this state to trust handgun permit holders" and that they are well trained in gun safety and related issues.
"When we draw imaginary lines on the ground saying we trust you here, handgun-carry permit holder, but we don't trust you there ... we aren't doing anything but creating a pleasing fiction."
He said, "Killers don't care about those imaginary lines." Questions also were raised about whether Rep. Tindell's amendment would withstand a judge's scrutiny. Rep. Tindell said it would.
House members voted 60-36 to table the compromise.
Noting lawmakers soon will be passing legislation that allows liquor to be sold in Chattanooga's Tivoli Theatre and Memorial Auditorium, Rep. Richard Floyd, R-Chattanooga, asked Rep. Todd whether under his bill permit holders would be able to go armed in the two facilities and if the two city-owned entities would have to post signs at the door banning them.
"They will need to do that if they don't want that to be in their establishment," Rep. Todd said.
Rep. Floyd wound up voting for the bill. He said he agreed with Rep. Fincher's arguments and believes the loss of licenses for three years is sufficient incentive to keep permit holders from drinking. Moreover, he said, "people think there aren't already guns in bars? We're all living in fantasy land."
Rep. JoAnne Favors, D-Chattanooga, who voted against the bill, later said, "If I felt I needed to take a gun into a bar or a restaurant, I wouldn't go."
Last year's law allowed permit holders in establishments selling alcohol provided they served food five days a week and met food requirements.
But faced with evidence that many restaurants failed to meet the food requirements, a Davidson County judge said it was unconstitutionally vague because it placed a burden on permit holders to know whether the business met the requirements.
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