Tennessee: Guns in bars are fine, but not in the Capitol

Tennessee: Guns in bars are fine, but not in the Capitol

May 10th, 2009 by Andy Sher in Politics State

NASHVILLE - Lawmakers' zeal for expanding handgun-carry permit holders' ability to go armed stops at the doors of the state Capitol.

Tennessee lawmakers this year have pushed legislation aimed at letting the state's estimated 220,000 handgun permit holders bring firearms to playgrounds, state and local parks, school parking lots, employers' parking lots, civic centers and establishments selling alcohol.

But they have shown little appetite for allowing permit holders to bring loaded firearms into their own backyard - the state Capitol and Legislative Plaza complex.

Visitors entering the Legislative Plaza see signs citing a section of state code and warning that "the Tennessee General Assembly has banned weapons within the Legislative Plaza and the Second Floor of the state Capitol."

Those signs aren't expected to change anytime soon, despite legislative efforts by Rep. Stacey Campfield, R-Knoxville, to allow handgun permit holders with specialized training to carry guns wherever police can - including the plaza.

But Tennessee Firearms Association Executive John Harris said lawmakers don't need to pass a law allowing guns in the General Assembly anyway.

He said permit holders' ability to go armed is banned in the Capitol and Legislative Plaza through a posting provision in state code that allows officials to ban the practice.

All it would take is for the House and Senate speakers to order the signs be taken down, said Mr. Harris, an attorney who advocates for expansion of places where permit holders can go.

"Government buildings are not off limits," Mr. Harris said. "They're only off limits if somebody, typically a bureaucrat, decides to make them off limits."

Mr. Harris recalled that former Senate Speaker and Lt. Gov. John Wilder "just decided one day we maybe needed signs up."

Sen. Doug Jackson, D-Dickson, said the decision is up to the two current speakers - Sen. Ron Ramsey, R-Blountville, and House Speaker Kent Williams, R-Elizabethton.

"If they decided to remove the posting and allow handgun permit holders to come here with their guns, I'm comfortable with it," Sen. Jackson said. "We won't be in any danger, any more than on the street where they're allowed to carry."

Sen. Jackson is sponsor of legislation scheduled to come back Monday before the Senate that would allow permit holders to bring loaded firearms into establishments selling alcohol.

Sens. Ramsey and Williams have supported many of this year's efforts to expand places where handgun permit holders can go armed.

Lt. Gov. Ramsey and a spokesman did not return telephone calls Friday. Aides said Speaker Williams was on a fishing trip and unavailable for comment.

Rep. Richard Floyd, R-Chattanooga, said he has no objection to permit holders bringing their firearms into the state Capitol.

"If they have a permit to carry that gun, they've earned that," he said. "They've done all the state requires to be able to carry that gun. The Constitution, it just says you have a right to bear arms. It doesn't have a clause in there that you have a right to bear arms except here and here and here."

Permit holders currently must undergo criminal background checks and complete and pass an eight-hour handgun training course.

Rep. Campfield said all permit holders with the specialized police-style training, which lasts a week, should be able to carry firearms in the Capitol.

"Legal carry permit holders are very safe people," Rep. Campfield said.

Since 2005, state Safety Department records show, nearly 1,200 permit holders have had their licenses revoked for felony convictions or suspended for court orders of protection or pending criminal charges.