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A sign prohibiting firearms is seen at the Tennessee Riverpark. The Hamilton County commission voted to ban firearms in Hamilton County parks on Wednesday.
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NASHVILLE -- Over the past six years, Republicans in Tennessee's General Assembly have expanded handgun permit holders' rights to go armed in restaurants, bars and state parks and to stash weapons in their vehicles on privately owned parking lots.

But it may be a Senate Democrat who goes down in history for giving permit-holders the right to go armed in the place where lawmakers spend much of their time: the state Capitol.

Sen. Jeff Yarbro, D-Nashville, was trying Tuesday to block a Republican bill taking away cities' and counties' authority to ban permit-holders from carrying firearms in public parks, playgrounds and ball fields.

His solution? An amendment to let permit holders -- 500,000 Tennesseans have one -- go armed in the Capitol, Legislative Plaza and the War Memorial Building, which house committee hearings rooms and lawmakers' offices, as well as other areas of the Capitol complex.

"I think what's good for the goose should be good for the gander here," Yarbro said. "... This is an important thing for us to do to avoid having a hypocritical bill."

Parks bill sponsor Sen. John Stevens, R-Huntington, said there's a different between Legislative Plaza and your average park: The Capitol complex has high security and visitors can feel safe. But that sort of security isn't in place at parks, playgrounds and ball fields, so visitors should be able to protect themselves, Stevens argued.

He tried to table Yarbro's amendment, but the Democrat launched an argument about "unfair double standards" and Stevens desisted.

During the ensuing debate, Senate Minority Leader Lee Harris, D-Memphis, argued that barring his city from banning guns in parks could prove dangerous. Citing past Ku Klux Klan rallies in a city park, Harris said the city should be allowed to implement temporary bans to keep both sides safe. He argued that Memphis needs to be able to implement temporary bans.

Yarbro's amendment eventually passed, 28-0. Then senators approved the guns-in-parks bill, 26-7.

While some say Yarbro never thought his "poison pill" would get into the bill, the senator said, "I thought it was a distinct possibility it would go on."

Now the bill is headed back to the House, where Yarbro doesn't know what kind of reception it'll get.

"I think the Senate recognized there's a lot of merit to holding ourselves to the same standards as we're applying to local governments and I hope they're taking that seriously," Yarbro said.

Several Republican lawmakers said they would vote for the amended bill. House leaders, however, are hanging their hats on assertions that Yarbro's amendment is poorly worded and confusing.

House Speaker Beth Harwell of Nashville said in a statement that's reason enough not to concur with the Senate version.

House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga, says the two chambers need to talk.

"The Capitol security folks, they've expressed alarm about that," McCormick said.

McCormick also said House leaders need to speak with National Rifle Association officials, who he said also oppose the amendment as poorly worded.

House Republican Caucus Chairman Glen Casada of Franklin quipped that, "Once again, the House is going to clean up the mess of the Senate -- and you can quote me."

The NRA's national convention is later this week in Nashville.

Contact staff writer Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com or 615-255-0550.

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