Tennesseans may want to treat their state legislators with a little more respect in the future: Records show one out of every four members of the Tennessee General Assembly has a state-issued permit to carry a loaded handgun.
Thirty-four of the legislature's 132 members hold handgun-carry permits, according to Department of Safety records cross-referenced with other available information such as home addresses.
That comes to 25.75 percent of the membership of the House and Senate, a figure about five times the percentage among the state's general population.
In the 33-member Senate, one third or 11 senators, have a handgun-carry permit. Twenty-three legislators in the 99-member House - or 23.2 percent - have permits, records show.
Statewide, 219,236 Tennesseans have permits, meeting requirements that include being at least 21 and passing a handgun safety course. In 2007, they comprised about 4.67 percent of the estimated 4,687,000 adult Tennesseans ages 18 and older, according to U.S. Census Bureau estimates. No 2007 data on how many adult Tennesseans who are 21 and above was available.
Legislative permit holders range from Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, R-Blountville, the Senate speaker, to Sen. Ophelia Ford, D-Memphis, and from House Republican Leader Jason Mumpower, R-Bristol, to former House Speaker Jimmy Naifeh, D-Covington, records show.
In all, 22 Republicans have permits while 12 Democrats possess one.
"One of four has it? I'm really surprised," said Rep. Naifeh. He noted he obtained his permit in part last year to demonstrate he was not anti-gun but largely "anti-gun in bars" when he blocked handgun-carry permit bills in a House subcommittee.
No local legislators have gun permits, according to a review of the Safety Department database. The handgun permit totals do not include as many as five other lawmakers eligible to carry guns as current or retired members of law enforcement.
While then-Speaker Naifeh blocked many of the bills in recent years, the issue has taken on new life with the election of a new House Speaker, Kent Williams of Elizabethton, a Republican-turned independent, who does not hold a permit, records show.
A dozen of the handgun-carry permitted lawmakers are lead House or Senate sponsors on nearly three dozen bills dealing with a myriad of handgun issues, according to legislative records.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Mae Beavers, R-Mount Juliet, whom records show is a permit holder, alone is sponsoring 13 bills dealing with handgun permits, records show.
National Rifle Association officials are promoting several of the bills in Tennessee and other states. Last week, four long-blocked bills began moving in the House, including:
n Letting permit holders bring their concealed weapons into restaurants selling alcohol until 11 p.m., provided they do not drink.
n Allowing permit holders to bring their weapons into state parks.
n Letting permit holders bring their pistols into wildlife management areas.
n Making all information about handgun-carry permit holders confidential. Anyone publishing the information would be committing a Class A misdemeanor, punishable by fines of up to $2,500. Similar bills are being promoted by the NRA in at least three other states, including Alabama.
Handgun-carry permitted lawmakers sponsoring or supporting the bills said they see no more conflict in pressing such measures as they do when sponsoring driver license legislation that impacts them as drivers.
"We deal with that every day in the legislature," said Rep. Joe McCord, R-Maryville, a permit holder who was chairman of a House handgun study committee that recommended the four bills now moving.
The sponsor of the measure closing off records to the public, Rep. Eddie Bass, D-Prospect, is a former sheriff. He acknowledged he is eligible to carry a handgun but declined to say whether he does.
Rep. Bass said permit holders are furious over the Commercial Appeal of Memphis' decision to put the names of permit holders on its website.
The 14-member Judiciary Committee hears the bills this week. Among the full panel's members is Rep. Henry Fincher, D-Cookeville, an attorney, permit holder and licensed gun safety instructor. He compared obtaining a handgun-carry permit to purchasing fire insurance - not because a fire will happen but because it might.
"I choose to carry a handgun because I know someone could assault me with the intent to take my life," Rep. Fincher said. "I don't expect that to happen, but I know that it could."