Tennessee House reduces first-offense penalties for carrying handgun without state permit

The Tennessee House of Representatives meets on the opening day of the legislative session Tuesday, Jan. 9, 2018, in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

NASHVILLE - The Tennessee House voted Monday to reduce first-offense penalties for carrying a handgun without a state-issued permit, jamming the controversial measure through on a 72-20 vote despite criticisms from Democrats and concerns from the Haslam administration as well as some law enforcement officials and others.

Rep. Bo Mitchell, D-Nashville, criticized the measure, saying police "use this as a tool to get a lot of guns off the streets that will later be used in crimes" and blasted as "pathetic" Republicans moving the bill as the nation continues to mourn the fatal shooting of 17 students and faculty at a Parkland, Fla., high school.

"In today's society, where we are looking for society to make children safer, this bill is setting a poor example," Mitchell charged.

But Majority Leader Glen Casada, R-Franklin, argued that the nation has a "heart problem, not a gun problem."

Current law makes it a Class C misdemeanor to carry a handgun without a permit, which requires a criminal background check and some training. It also provides up to 30 days in jail.

The bill, sponsored by Rep. Micah Van Huss, R-Gray, cuts the fine on first offense to $250 and eliminates the jail penalty, the latter which is evidently rarely used.

Van Huss, a Marine sniper in the Iraq war, defended the legislation, said there have been cases where citizens with guns have stopped attacks. Van Huss cited as an example last September's assault by a gunman on a church in Nashville's Antioch community which left one churchgoer dead and wounded seven others.

The representative said church usher Robert Caleb Engle confronted the gunman. At the time, Metro Nashville police said Engle fought with the alleged gunman, Emanuel Kidega Samson. Police said the gunman shot himself during the struggle. Engle, a licensed gun owner, rushed to his vehicle, retrieved his firearm and ensured Samson didn't leave until police arrived, authorities have said.

Van Huss' bill also prohibits police from seizing an unlicensed handgun carrier on first offense. But they added an amendment sponsored by Rep. Bill Dunn, R-Knoxville, that allows police to take the ammunition fron the weapon.

In other action Monday night:

» Tennessee schools will be required to display the national motto "In God We Trust" under legislation that cleared the Senate.

The bill, which was included in a 35-measure package of non-controversial bills and resolutions and placed on a "consent calendar" of measures, was not debated and passed unanimously.

Sponsored by Sen. Paul Bailey, R-Sparta, the House companion bill is scheduled to be considered Tuesday in the Education Administration and Planning Committee.

Dubbed the "National Motto in the Classroom Act," the legislation requires each school to display "In God We Trust" in a "prominent location" where students are likely to see it. That includes a school entry or exit, cafeteria or common area "where students are likely to see the national motto display."

The display may take the form of a mounted plaque or student art work but is not limited to those. According to a legislative financial analysis, each school can do that within existing resources.

Meanwhile, the Tennessee attorney general's office will be responsible "for defending any litigation brought against the state for such requirements" by anyone objecting to public tax dollars' use in the mandatory displays, according to the analysis.

The fiscal note also says it is "assumed any increase in expenditures will be accommodated within the existing resources" of the attorney general's office "without an increased appropriation or reduced reversion."

» The House voted 94-0 for a bill sponsored by Rep. Patsy Hazlewood, R-Signal Mountain, which bars children under age 16 from using commercial tanning salons. Now they can use them with signed permission from their parents or a guardian. Under a committee compromise, the bill still allows teens ages 16 to 18 to continue using the facilities but requires parental permission.

"I just think that it's a good day for Tennesseans," Hazlewood said after the vote. "I think we're going to save some lives and save some young women some heartache down the road."

Hazlewood, who introduced the legislation at the behest of doctors, said "we know that the earlier you begin using them, the more susceptible you are to cancers like melanoma which can sometimes be even fatal."

» The House voted 96-0 to approve a resolution by Rep. Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga, that urges the State Capitol Commission to require a planned statue of Tennessee frontiersman, congressman and Texas hero David "Davy" Crockett be erected where the current statue of slain prohibitionist, U.S. senator and former newspaper publisher Edward Carmack now rests.

Carmack's statue is in front of the state Capitol, above the Motlow Tunnel, an underground passage into the Capitol. The tunnel underneath alcohol prohibitionist Carmack was named decades ago by lawmakers in honor of the family of a legislator, Reagor Motlow, whose family was related to whiskey maker Jack Daniels.

Contact Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com or 615-255-0550. Follow on Twitter @AndySher1.