After measure fails in House panel, proponents vow to press Tennessee gun safety bill next year

Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, R-Blountville, presides over a session of the Tennessee Senate Monday, March 21, 2016, in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

NASHVILLE - Gun safety advocates are vowing to come back next year after a House panel on Tuesday defeated their bill that would have made it a crime for adults to leave unlocked, loaded guns accessible to children.

On a 7-2, party-line vote, Republicans on the House Civil Justice Committee voted down the bill named MaKayla's Law after an 8-year-old Jefferson County, Tenn., girl was fatally shot last year by an 11-year-old boy after she refused to let him play with her puppy. The boy grabbed his father's loaded shotgun from a closet.

The bill's sponsor, Rep. Sherry Jones, D-Nashville, asserted later that the panel "voted to allow irresponsible gun owners to continue to leave their guns out so children can pick them up and continue this long line of injuries and deaths by children who are able to access guns."

The National Rifle Association's political and lobbying arm had issued an alert urging Tennessee lawmakers to vote against the measure, calling it "unnecessary and unenforceable" and arguing gun safety education of children and parents, not legislation, is the answer.

Beth Joslin Roth with the Safe Tennessee Project, which backed the bill, said despite the bill having support from "responsible gun owners" and others, the panel members "collectively shrugged their shoulders" and voted no.

Calling it "shameful," Roth said "despite the setback, we do intend to bring the bill next year, and we will continue to raise awareness about this important issue."

She said Tennessee, which ranks ninth nationally in accidental gun deaths, in the last 15 months has lost 12 children.

Among those was 3-year-old Gavin Pittman of Hamilton County, who police say found his mother's loaded .380-caliber pistol in her vehicle, fired it and killed himself last month. His mother, Kelly Pittman, is charged with criminally negligent homicide.

After Jones presented the bill to the committee, there was no debate and it was immediately brought up for a vote. It failed, with all seven Republicans present voting no and the two Democrats voting for it.

Tennessee Democratic Party Chairwoman Mary Mancini later charged Republicans with kowtowing to the NRA and accused them of first deciding to kill the bill "in a secret committee pre-meeting, out of the public view."

The measure would have created an offense of recklessly placing, leaving or storing a firearm in a location in plain view and readily accessible to a child under 13 provided the weapon is in a location not immediately available to the adult, temporarily left unattended and it is loaded or there is ammunition immediately nearby.

If a child obtained a loaded weapon, the bill states, the adult could be charged with a Class A misdemeanor carrying up to a year in jail upon conviction. An adult could be charged with a Class E felony carrying imprisonment of one to six years upon conviction provided the child obtained possession, fired the gun and caused bodily injury to the child or another person.

An adult could be charged with a Class C felony carrying 3-15 years in prison if the child obtains the gun and it discharges, resulting in death of the child or another.

Tennessee has reckless endangerment laws on the books, but one prosecutor recently told senators he and colleagues are reluctant to use the statute because it's very hard to obtain a conviction. He said he could have supported the MaKayla's Law measure.

Among Republicans voting no was Rep. Mike Carter, R-Ooltewah, who said in an interview after the vote he thought the provisions were so burdensome it could cause problems.

"If you listened to the explanation of the bill, that's the reason I voted against it," said Carter, an attorney. "You must have the gun locked up; you must keep the bullets or the ammunition in a separate, secure place."

That's a problem in the event of a home invasion, Carter said.

"If your wife or your mom or somebody's being raped, do you literally want that person to have to say, 'Excuse me, Mr. Violent Criminal, let me have a chance to unlock my gun, let me have a chance to go to that separate designated place and get my ammunition and load it. And then I'll be back and you can resume your attack.'

"That's what the bill requires us to do," Carter said. "And I find that absolutely absurd."

Carter added, "Everyone wants to protect kids and the NRA and all these people have these protocols to safely secure your gun. That was my concern. When you require me to have an unloaded gun, what am I going to do, throw it at the assailant? I find that ridiculous. I think the person ought to be responsible with the gun."

Contact staff writer Andy Sher at, 615-255-0550 or follow via twitter at AndySher1.