Opinion: Sensible legislation would 'sentence' gun security violators to taking firearms safety course

Michael Louis Slebodnik via The New York Times / In an undated handout photo, some of the 772 guns collected in exchange for gift cards at a Gun By Gun buyback event in another city are pictured.

A 12-year-old Chattanooga boy accidentally shot himself in Eastdale Friday while his mother was inside a nearby store.

Few details were released about the incident, so we don't know if the gun was legal, was lying unsecured in the car or was loaded when it was accessed. What we do know, fortunately, is the child reportedly has non-life threatening injuries.

Only days earlier, Chattanooga Mayor Tim Kelly joined his colleagues of the three other largest cities in Tennessee to stand behind a bill backing the safe storage of firearms in cars and boats. The bill says, when the owner is not present, firearms and ammunition must be "kept from ordinary observation and locked within the trunk, utility or glove box, or a locked container securely affixed to the motor vehicle or boat."

The bill also said gun owners must report their gun stolen within 24 hours of the discovery of the loss.

Failure to comply with either aspect of the bill would result in a Class C misdemeanor charge which would be -- we love this -- punishable by having to take a firearms safety course. No monetary fine or jail time could be assessed.

Since the House and Senate bills, HB1233/SB1029, are sponsored by Democrats (the House bill has two Republican co-sponsors), the prospects of passage in the Republican-dominated legislature may be in doubt, but what's not to like about the legislation?

› It in no way restricts a gun owner from having a gun in the car or boat.

› If the owner is present in the car or boat, the legislation does not apply.

› The only "punishment" is a firearm safety course that the owner, considering that the gun was left unsecured, probably has never taken before.

The Tennessee Firearms Association, not surprisingly, opposes the bill and said in a newsletter "THIS BILL MUST BE STOPPED" (emphasis theirs). The organization says the legislation "would violate the Supreme Court's holding in Bruen by attempting to oppose regulations on how individuals store firearms."

However, the 2022 Bruen decision more generally curtailed a state's ability to restrict a citizen's right to carry a firearm publicly for self-defense. It did not keep states from banning guns from certain places, keep businesses from enforcing their own restrictions on the possession and carrying of firearms at their facilities, or deal with the storing of firearms.

The Tennessee Firearms Association already was bruising from last week's weakening of a Second Amendment bill in the Senate Judiciary Committee that would have allowed legal gun owners to carry a gun anywhere in the state at any time, would have changed what was allowed to be carried from a handgun to any firearm, and would allow 18- to 20-year-olds to get a handgun permit or carry without a permit if they meet all other qualifications.

Legislators on the committee stripped out the first two tenets and left the one about the 18- to 20-year-olds because Tennessee Attorney General Jonathan Skrmetti already has entered into a settlement agreement that said the previous Tennessee law that forbid those ages 18-20 from carrying violated the 14th Amendment.

In commenting on the actions, the firearms association called the actions "a cavernous void of constitutional stewardship," said committee Chairman Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, and those who voted for the amendments only "identify as Republicans" and said the "Gardenhire Gang of Four" has crushed "your constitutionally protected rights" in compliance with the preferences of Lt. Gov. Randy McNally and Gov. Bill Lee.

The firearms storage bill is scheduled to be heard by Gardenhire's Senate Judiciary Committee and the House Criminal Justice Subcommittee today.

The 12-year-old boy who was injured Friday would have benefited from such a bill -- assuming he wouldn't have had access to a properly locked storage area -- but for Kelly and the other mayors, the primary need for such a bill is the growing number of guns stolen from cars and used later in crimes.

We have written previously on the subject of leaving cars with firearms unlocked or leaving them visible to someone looking in a car window, but Chattanooga recently was listed second on an Everytown Research and Policy list of U.S. cities with the highest rates of gun thefts from cars per capita, as compiled from FBI data from 2011 to 2020.

The city, which had 193.1 thefts per 100,000 people, trailed only Memphis on the list.

In Nashville in just over two months this year, 217 guns have been stolen from vehicles, according to the Metro Nashville Police Department. And that number, police say, accounts for 76% of all guns stolen in Davidson County this year.

We hesitate to use the words "common sense" since that has become such a pejorative term in referring to relatively tame legislation involving guns, but asking gun owners to secure their guns in their cars or boats -- only when they're not in them, for goodness sake -- seems like a "common sense" type of law. And the sentence for violating the law? Why only a safety course that might remind them how their carelessness cost them their handgun.