NASHVILLE — Sen. Todd Gardenhire and the executive director of the Tennessee Firearms Association are trading verbal shots over the Chattanooga Republican's refusal this week to vote for a bill allowing Tennesseans to go armed in public without having to have state-issued handgun carry permits.
The bill failed in the Judiciary Committee on a 4-4-1 vote with Gardenhire abstaining. It needed five votes to pass and proceed to the Senate floor.
It would have allowed any Tennessean age 21 and older who can legally buy a firearm to carry a handgun. Now more than half a million residents can if they obtain a state-issued handgun carry permit.
After the vote, the Tennessee Firearms Association, headed by attorney John Harris, issued a release criticizing both Gardenhire for abstaining and Sen. John Stevens, R-Huntington, who voted no.
"Constitutional Carry Held Hostage by broken oaths in Tennessee Senate," the email's headline reads.
"Sen. Gardenhire 'passed' — that is he pulled a Barack Obama and was 'present but not voting,'" the release said.
But Gardenhire, who is a handgun permit holder, returned fire, saying he never agreed to vote for the bill and told the sponsor, Sen. Mark Green, R-Clarksville, he wouldn't.
Gardenhire said he also told Green he would not vote against his bill.
He then went on to call Harris a bully who "can't take it when he loses."
Gardenhire said the state's decades-old handgun carry permit law, which requires criminal background checks and firearms training, provides important safeguards.
"I'm a strong believer in the Second Amendment," Gardenhire said. "But this bill has come up time and time again always by the same individual, Mr. Harris. He makes his living by stirring the pot on these issues, always bringing people bills that nobody can vote for because they're way out of line."
During Monday's nearly hour-long debate, Green said the writers of the U.S. Constitution envisioned an "armed citizenry" that could serve as the "last line of defense."
Green argued that in an age of "lone-wolf" terrorists the bill is needed. Seven states have similar permitless carry laws in place and this week lawmakers in another state, West Virginia, overrode a gubernatorial veto of another constitutional carry bill.
In order to make the bill more palatable, Green pushed an amendment, which was adopted, that would have required persons carrying guns to undergo an eight-hour firearms training course.
Tennessee Highway Patrol Col. Tracy Trott testified against the bill, saying the permit system with its background checks and standardized, mandatory training regimen help ensure public safety.
He said state background checks include examining whether applicants have ever been adjudicated mentally ill.
Trott also said the gun-training courses that would-be gun carriers now take is conducted by state-certified instructors to ensure everyone is getting the same basic training on issues from gun safety to understanding "shoot and don't shoot" situations.
In the statement, Harris' group said, "This battle is not over."