NASHVILLE -- Senate Republicans fretted Tuesday about radical Islamists, political correctness and whether Tennessee National Guard officials are being too cautious with their new gun policy following the July 16 slaying of five servicemen in Chattanooga.
"We do have an enemy and the enemy is radical Islam and they have declared war on our military," said Sen. Janice Bowling, R-Tullahoma.
Bowling's comments came during a joint hearing by the State Government Committee and Transportation and Safety Committee on Gov. Bill Haslam's move to allow Guard members with state handgun permits to carry at armories and other facilities following the attack.
Senators heard from Tennessee Adj. Gen. Max Haston on his steps to allow Guard members with state-issued handgun permits to carry personal weapons at state facilities. The new policy also permits select guardsmen to carry federal firearms at U.S. military installations where they are located.
Also testifying was David Purkey, assistant commissioner over Homeland Security in the state Department of Safety. He told lawmakers the agency has issued 50 threat warning assessments to government agencies so far this year. Among them was a March threat involving military recruiting centers, which did not materialize, Purkey noted.
Authorities say 24-year-old Mohammad Youssef Abdulazeez first attacked a military recruiting center on Lee Highway last month where he blasted windows with a semi-automatic rifle. He then drove to Amnicola Highway and attacked the U.S. Naval and Marine Reserve Center, killing four Marines and mortally wounding a Naval officer.
Reuters news service has quoted an Abdulazeez friend as saying he sent a text message which linked to a Koranic verse that includes the text: "Whosoever shows enmity to a friend of Mine, then I have declared war against him."
But the FBI for now continues to call Abdulazeez a "homegrown violent extremist" and has stopped short of calling him a terrorist or linking it to extreme religious beliefs.
That had some lawmakers, including Sen. Mark Green, R-Clarksville, a physician and former Special Operations member, upset because they say it was a terror attack. The five slain servicemen all deserve Medals of Honor, Green said.
Some Republican lawmakers also didn't like the idea that under the new handgun-carry regulations Guard members will conceal their weapons and not openly carry at armories, recruiting centers and U.S. Air Force facilities in Tennessee. Haston said he doesn't want distractions caused by open carrying. Moreover, a number will be wearing gun belts so would-be attackers won't know who is armed and who is not, he pointed out.
Speaking later with reporters, Haston said, "What I don't want to happen is it to turn into my gun is bigger than your gun; I've got a better gun than you've got."
Green, meanwhile, said he believes any Guard member with a military ID should be given a state-issued handgun-carry permit and not have to undergo the eight-hour gun safety course.
But Haston said less than a third of Guard members have specific training on handgun use and safety. The state training should cut down on problems like accidental discharges, he said. Moreover, Haston noted, the required Tennessee Bureau of Investigation background check for permit holders is good, as well.
The adjutant general cited the 2013 case of a National Guard recruiter who drew his handgun and shot three superior officers. He said that between the TBI background check, annual health assessments that include a mental health component and a "buddy system" where members are paired with a colleagues, most problems should be addressed.
Lawmakers also voiced support for the $18.2 million Haston said would bring all Guard facilities up to speed on anti-terror attack security with cameras, bullet-resistant glass and the most expensive item, crash-resistant fencing.
Contact Andy Sher at firstname.lastname@example.org or 615-255-0550.