Tennessee politics: Kelly among mayors supporting legislation aimed at gun thefts from cars

Staff Photo by Robin Rudd / Chattanooga Mayor Tim Kelly speaks Thursday at Chattanooga Head Start in Avondale. Kelly is among a group of big city, big county mayors in Tennessee supporting state legislation designed to cut down on the number of gun thefts from vehicles.
Staff Photo by Robin Rudd / Chattanooga Mayor Tim Kelly speaks Thursday at Chattanooga Head Start in Avondale. Kelly is among a group of big city, big county mayors in Tennessee supporting state legislation designed to cut down on the number of gun thefts from vehicles.

NASHVILLE -- In a state where firearm thefts from vehicles are a problem, a four-member group of Tennessee big city and big county mayors, among them Chattanooga Mayor Tim Kelly, are supporting legislation seeking to address the issue with a bill slated for hearings in state House and Senate committees this week.

Kelly's involvement comes after two high-profile shootings in Chattanooga last year resulted in three deaths, 14 people wounded or otherwise injured and a wave of national coverage.

Senate Bill 1029, sponsored by Sen. Jeff Yarbro, D-Nashville, and House Bill 1233, carried by Rep. Caleb Hemmer, D-Nashville, would make it a misdemeanor for someone to store a loaded or unloaded firearm or ammunition in a vehicle or boat unless the weapon or ammo is kept out of "ordinary" observation and locked in a trunk, utility or glove box or in a securely attached and locked box.

"We are calling on our state lawmakers to pass legislation to prevent gun thefts from vehicles and to work with gun owners and dealers to ensure that their guns do not end up in the hands of the wrong people," Kelly, Metro Nashville Mayor John Cooper, Knoxville Mayor Indya Kincannon and Shelby County Mayor Lee Harris wrote in their letter to state lawmakers. "Gun thefts from vehicles are occurring in staggering numbers across the state of Tennessee."

The legislation requires someone who owns a firearm to report the loss or theft of the firearm within 24 hours of discovering the theft to law enforcement. Violations are a misdemeanor.

The legislation says violations are punishable by the completion of a court-approved firearm safety course and specifically bars a court from imposing a fine or incarceration for a violation of either provision.

Metro Nashville said 121 guns have been reported stolen from vehicles in that city so far this year, accounting for 70% of all gun thefts.

Citing federal National Incident-Based Reporting System figures, the mayors said Nashville vehicle gun thefts increased 14% from 2019 to 2020. Figures for Memphis show a 23% jump.

Chattanooga gun thefts from vehicles rose by 24%. Knoxville was the highest at 36%.

The mayors said research shows gun thieves often divert guns into an underground market where people with "dangerous histories" are easily able to obtain access.

"That is why stolen guns are often recovered at crime scenes, including at the scenes of homicides and other violent crimes," the mayors said. They also note most of the 23,000 stolen firearms recovered by police nationally between 2010 and 2016 were recovered in connection with crimes, including more than 1,500 violent acts.

"Requiring secure storage of unattended firearms in cars and mandating reporting of lost or stolen guns to local law enforcement can reduce underground gun sales and illegal gun trafficking," the mayors said.

They also said mandatory-reporting laws for lost and stolen guns were associated with a 46% reduction in traced illegal gun movement when compared to states without such laws, citing an analysis of federal data by Everytown for Gun Safety.

Long guns

Also this week, lawmakers in the House are continuing to move through committees another gun bill, House Bill 1005. It eliminates the criminal offense of possession of a firearm or club with intent to go armed.

It also lowers from 21 to 18 the minimum age to obtain a state-issued concealed and enhanced gun carry permit. That's in accordance with an agreed court settlement Tennessee Attorney General Jonathan Skrmetti reached with a California gun-rights group that represented three Tennessee plaintiffs who sued the state over the exclusion of 18-20-year-old Tennesseans from such permits.

The House bill also authorizes holders of concealed and enhanced handgun carry permits to carry "any firearm" that the permit-holder legally owns or possesses in any place or manner that is currently authorized for handguns. The House version also would allow permit holders to carry long guns such as rifles and semi-automatic weapons. The Senate version restricts it to handguns.

The latter provision is not in the upper chamber's companion measure, Senate Bill 1503, and that could result in a fight between the House and Senate.

More counties

House Education Administration Chairman Mark White, R-Memphis, plans to include two more counties in Sen. Todd Gardenhire's bill to extend the state's school voucher program to Hamilton County.

White has an amendment to the House version of the measure, House Bill 443, that would also bring Knox and Madison counties under the 2019 law and provide some $8,100 in taxpayer dollars to eligible low-income families to pay tuition at private schools willing to accept them.

Gov. Bill Lee, who branded the vouchers as the education savings account program, brought the original bill.

Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, had kept Hamilton County Schools out of the 2019 measure. The senator, a longtime voucher proponent, said he excluded Hamilton in 2019 because the then-schools superintendent had assured the local legislative delegation he had developed a plan to help poorly performing schools. That hasn't worked, Gardenhire said.

Sole no vote

Senate Democratic Caucus Chairwoman London Lamar of Memphis said compromises made to get Tennessee Right to Life's agreement to narrow exceptions to the state's near-total abortion ban make the legislation useless.

"I was the sole no vote on that legislation, and this is why," she told reporters Thursday.

The senator said under the legislation, a woman has to be almost on "her deathbed" before a doctor can intervene.

"In other words, you're incentivizing doctors to wait until a woman is dying in order to give her life-saving treatment," Lamar said. "I don't feel this very narrow, small exception helps solve the problem in any way. If you're on your deathbed anyway, a doctor is probably going to risk his license anyway to save you."

Lamar, who suffered a miscarriage as a result of preeclampsia, charged the bill does "absolutely nothing."

The House bill was sponsored by Rep. Esther Helton-Haynes, R-East Ridge.

It applies an exception for saving the life of the mother and provides another exception for ectopic pregnancies in which a fertilized egg forms outside the womb and isn't viable. The other exception to prosecution is a molar pregnancy. Molar pregnancies, which are rare, involve unusual growths of cells called trophoblasts. The placenta can become cancerous. Otherwise, physicians are subject to the state's 2019 "trigger" law. It says all abortions are illegal but that physicians who are charged can mount an "affirmative" defense in criminal proceedings if charged and argue it was medically necessary.

Contact Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com or 615-285-9480.

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