NASHVILLE -- University of Tennessee efforts to crack down following two criminal incidents involving gun-toting university athletes have put school officials in the sights of a Knoxville legislator.
Rep. Stacey Campfield, R-Knoxville, is questioning if the university is infringing on other athletes' Second Amendment gun rights and has a bill he said will remedy the problem -- although UT officials say there is not one.
"The University of Tennessee athletic director said they were going to suspend any athlete with a gun, legal or illegal," Rep. Campfield said Thursday. "I think they (UT officials) are trying to back away a little bit, but they still have that right. My bill hopefully would stop them from going down the road when they start doing that."
He said his bill says that if a "student is on their own time, on their own property, is a legal gun owner, that the university can't penalize that student for doing something legal with their gun, hunting with it, carrying it for protection."
Students still would be prohibited from bringing weapons onto campus, he said. He later charged UT officials are raising "straw man" arguments in voicing concerns, they could not control athletes' behavior at private universities or nonuniversity arenas.
Hank Dye, UT's vice president of public and government relations, said there is no need to alter current law with changes that could prove confusing or worse.
"We want to have the parameter or the authority to say, 'Guys, if you're on this team, we're not taking any guns to Providence, R.I." -- an allusion to where UT's basketball team is playing in the NCAA tournament.
"We think the existing law is a good law," Mr. Dye said. "It protects the Second Amendment rights of the students or anybody else, but it also gives the coaches and the staff the parameters around which they can provide guidelines and directions for these young people."
Mr. Dye said athletic director Mike Hamilton has "backed away" from comments made in early January when Mr. Hamilton told reporters "we've talked about how we're going to handle the discipline and that our tolerance for these types of activities has gone to zero."
According to Mr. Dye, Mr. Hamilton "overstated himself when he came out with a zero-tolerance policy statement and he understands that and has backed away from that."
Students can own guns, Mr. Dye said, but cannot bring them onto campus.
Mr. Hamilton's comments came after a New Year's Day incident in which police stopped four UT basketball players and said they found two handguns and a bag of marijuana in their car. All four were suspended, and one, forward Tyler Smith, was dropped from the team.
That incident occurred after a November controversy in which three UT football players were arrested on charges of attempting to hold up three others with a pellet gun. Charges against two were dropped but Nu'Keese Richardson was dismissed from the Vols football program.
USA Today reported in January Mr. Richardson was at another college after pleading guilty to one count of attempted robbery and getting probation.
In a legislature where records show one out of four legislators has a handgun-carry permit and gun bills proliferate, Rep. Campfield recently amended one of his own gun bills with new language.
It states that "no public college or university shall prohibit or penalize any person who legally possesses or uses a firearm and who is enrolled as a student or athlete in such public college or university for the transportation, possession, use or legal ownership of such firearm when such person is not on the property of the public college or university."
The House Judiciary Committee's Criminal Practice and Procedure Subcommittee recently passed the measure. But UT officials raised concerns on Tuesday when it came up in the full Judiciary Committee. The bill ultimately was delayed in order to obtain a state attorney general's opinion on whether the bill could legally accommodate the code section Rep. Campfield wants to amend.
Earlier, UT legislative liaison Anthony Haynes told lawmakers that athletic officials have said "when it comes to performance of athletes off the court, their behavior and things like that, don't make it harder for us."
Rep. Campfield said he had another amendment he worked out that allows UT or other public colleges and universities to maintain control of student athletes when at private institutions such as Vanderbilt University or private settings such as the Bridgestone Center in Nashville where the SEC basketball tournament recently played out.