NASHVILLE - Add Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke to the list of Tennessee's "Big Four" city mayors opposing a bill in the Legislature that seeks to strip local governments of their power to keep firearms out of public parks.
Berke, a former Democratic state senator, on Wednesday joined mayors of Knoxville, Nashville and Memphis in objecting to the legislation sponsored by Sen. Stacey Campfield, R-Knoxville.
"When I was in the Legislature a central part of what I fought for was local control," said Berke, who was elected mayor last year. "This gives people the chance to decide what's best in their own community. By taking away that right, the state Legislature would be saying there's only one way to do that and Nashville knows that way."
The bill was cleared for Senate floor action after a 6-2 vote Tuesday in the Senate Judiciary Committee. The bill seeks to end city and county governments' ability to opt out of a 2009 law allowing firearms in public parks, playgrounds and ball fields.
It says handgun-carry permit holders can bring their firearms to any of those areas unless there's a school function. Campfield argued that local policies are confusing, even within the same park, where a person with a permit might be allowed to carry on trails but banned from going armed at a nearby ball field.
"What we have currently is a patchwork of laws that can vary, not just from city to city or park to park, but in some cases from step to step," Campfield said.
He also argued the Tennessee Constitution has a provision providing "the legislature shall regulate the wearing of arms" and that it "doesn't give us the authority to delegate that down to the local governments."
Critics, however, contended during the 2009 debate that allowing guns in parks could pose dangers to others in parks and ball fields, where tempers have been known to flare.
The companion bill, sponsored by Rep. Tilman Goins, R-Morristown, has yet to begin moving in the House.
Republican Gov. Bill Haslam, a former Knoxville mayor, reiterated his opposition to the bill. "My concern ... is this isn't just a Second Amendment right," the governor told reporters. "It's also a question about how we determine what the owner's voice is and what happens to that property." Cities and counties "bought those properties with their own tax dollars," the governor said. "And I think that's the proper place for a decision to be made, is according to who actually owns the property."
Other opponents of Campfield's bill include the mayors of Shelby and Knox counties. Nashville has metro government. Knox County Mayor Tim Burchett, a former Republican senator, voted for the original 2009 bill that contains the local option.
Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger said the county doesn't allow guns in Chester Frost Park or any of its other parks.
"I like the idea of local control, obviously," Coppinger said. "But then again, I'm a supporter of the Second Amendment. ... Obviously we will adhere to whatever the General Assembly votes to do."
Meanwhile, gun proponents on Wednesday may have picked up a new in-state ally as Italian gun maker Beretta joined Haslam to announce the company is building a manufacturing and research facility in Gallatin, a suburb near Nashville. It will employ an estimated 300 workers.
Second Amendment rights were "the first criteria for deciding to even consider a any," said Jeff Reh, a member of Beretta USA Corp.'s board of director and who led the site search.
Reh said other states the company examined "respect Second Amendment rights" but "didn't have the type of support that we saw in Tennessee."
Reh said he has heard about the guns in parks bill but hasn't had time to study it.
Several states made overtures to Beretta after Maryland, its U.S. base, enacted a wide-ranging gun control measure. The company intends to maintain its Maryland facility but says demand for its products requires expansion of production.
Contact staff writer Andy Sher at email@example.com or 615-255-0550.