NASHVILLE — Hoping to make a point on behalf of his bill requiring background checks on private gun sales, Tennessee House Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Stewart on Wednesday brought a rifle he purchased the day before to a committee meeting.
Brandishing the unloaded AR-15-style rifle, Stewart told House Civil Justice Subcommittee members he bought the weapon for $750 on Tuesday after locating a willing seller on the Internet.
Stewart said he and the seller conducted the transaction in a Nashville parking lot, where he forked over $750 in cash with few questions asked. He said he not only didn't undergo a background check, he didn't have to provide any ID to the seller showing who he was.
"Luckily I am not a member of a drug cartel," Stewart told the Republican-run panel. "I am not on a terrorist watch list. I am not a longtime criminal with a big record of felony convictions and violence."
But he said he just as easily could have been. Unless they're licensed gun dealers, he said, private sellers do not have to conduct background checks on anyone they sell to.
"Right now, we put our legitimate gun dealers at a significant disadvantage," he said, pointing out that if a terrorist sought to buy a weapon from a licensed dealer or store, they couldn't.
He also explained a state trooper had ensured the gun had no ammunition in it, and a plastic device placed on the weapon ensured it couldn't fire. Stewart noted he had carried a similar version of the semi-automatic while serving in the U.S. Army in the Middle East during Desert Storm and later in South Korea.
Republicans weren't happy with the demonstration with Rep. Jon Lundberg, R-Bristol, saying he was disappointed by what he characterized as Stewart's effort to put on a "show."
Stewart defended his use of the prop, saying he was trying to underscore how easy it is for anyone to purchase a weapon without undergoing a background check.
Lundberg said in his view, the gun sellers shouldn't be required to conduct background checks. He likened it to a car dealer and an individual selling a car.
"I want people to be able to buy and sell. This is silly," Lundberg said.
As Stewart continued to brandish the weapon while speaking, Rep. Mike Carter, R-Ooltewah, a former judge, interrupted, saying, "Mr. Chairman, excuse me I don't want to interrupt, but this gun could be loaded."
Stewart replied, "No, it could not because — "
Carter cut him off, saying, "Yes sir! You obviously don't own one, you do not have it properly safe. Do not point that gun at me if you can't assure me that gun cannot shoot."
"Let me give you that assurance, and I did it at the beginning of the debate, so that you would not have that concern," Stewart said. "Actually, as I said, I had a state trooper inspect this weapon to make sure it was not loaded before it came in here, and then I had him secure it."
Carter questioned whether Stewart had broken the law by purchasing the gun without showing an ID.
He also wanted to know whether his bill would require him to conduct a background check if giving a gift. Stewart said he thought it would but noted he was happy to accept an amendment exempting gifts if it meant the bill would go through.
It failed on a voice vote.
Stewart's bill had the support of the Tennessee Association of Chiefs of Police. The Associated Press quoted Knoxville police Chief David Rausch, the group's president, calling the current exemption "baffling."
"The sponsor made a great point that he was able overnight to buy a firearm that's a pretty serious weapon and that it could fall in the hands of the wrong person," the chief said.
Speaking with reporters later, Stewart noted that Chattanooga killer Mohammad Youssef Abdulazeez had purchased a gun from someone he had met on an online gun website prior to embarking on his deadly July rampage that left five U.S. military reservists dead in Chattanooga.
The Wall Street Journal last year quoted a friend of Abdulazeez saying he had purchased guns after contacting someone through the website.
The Times Free Press reported last year that a check of Hamilton County criminal background records showed that Abdulazeez's only arrest had been a few months before the slayings when he was charged with driving under the influence. He told police he had been around friends that night who'd been drinking and smoking. But he failed a sobriety test, was arrested and released on a $2,000 bond.
That doesn't fall within federal prohibitions on who would be blocked from buying a gun. There is a prohibition for anyone adjudicated as a "mental defective." Abdulazeez's family says he had been suffering some mental problems but had never been adjudicated or committed for treatment.
Federal officials also had not put the 24-year-old on any terrorist watch lists. The FBI later said Abdulazeez was "inspired" by terrorists.
Contact Andy Sher at firstname.lastname@example.org, 615-255-0550 or follow via twitter at AndySher1.