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NASHVILLE -- A new guns-in-bars bill cleared its first legislative hurdle Wednesday, a step toward allowing handgun-carry permit holders to go armed in restaurants that sell alcohol.

A similar bill passed the General Assembly last year but was overturned by a Davidson County court that said it was unconstitutionally vague.

While the state is appealing the Chancery Court ruling, "we don't know what the courts are going to do. So we would rather come back and make it clear for the permit holder where he can carry and not carry," Rep. Curry Todd, R-Collierville, the bill's sponsor, told House Criminal Practice and Procedure Committee members.

The new bill, HB 3125, passed the committee on a voice vote with two of the panel's five members audibly voting "no."

Approval came despite warnings from Tennessee Hospitality Association representatives that, unless business owners post signs prohibiting weapons, the bill will allow nearly 269,000 state-licensed permit holders to go into any establishment that sells alcohol for on-premises consumption.

"The bill last year allowed carrying in places that serve food and alcohol," said Dan Haskell, the association's lobbyist. "This bill allows carrying of weapons in every restaurant, every bar, every roadhouse in the state. It's a lot larger bill than what you passed last year."

Mr. Haskell said the bill "would require posting at every door and, in the hospitality industry, the last thing we want to have to do is post notices about guns at the door. It doesn't seem hospitable to us."

He asked for a delay, but Rep. Todd retorted that "no matter how long you wait, you're not going to please the opponents of this bill."

Permit holders would be guilty of a misdemeanor if they are caught drinking inside an establishment, but critics, including Gov. Phil Bredesen, have questioned the possibility of gunplay erupting in places where alcohol is being consumed.

Criminal Practice Subcommittee Chairman Eric Watson, R-Cleveland, a supporter of the bill, said permit holders are "law-abiding citizens."

"We're not talking about criminals here anyway," he said.

Speaking after the committee hearing, Nashville restaurateur Randy Rayburn, owner of the Sunset Grill, told reporters that he opposes the bill.

WHAT'S NEXT

The full House Judiciary Committee is scheduled to consider House Bill 3125 on Tuesday. Proponents hope to have it up in the Senate Judiciary Committee next week as well.

"As property owners, we feel that our property rights, when they come into conflict with Second Amendment rights, need to be respected," he said, "and that the security of our customers and employees needs to be protected."

The House bill must clear several more panels before reaching the House floor. The Senate bill is expected to begin moving next week, Rep. Todd said.

After last year's bill was passed, Gov. Bredesen vetoed it, but legislators easily overrode the veto.

Restaurateurs sued and, on Nov. 20, Davidson County Chancellor Claudia Bonnyman ruled the law unconstitutionally vague.

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