NASHVILLE -- House Republican leaders on Thursday defended their plans to strip a Senate amendment from a bill which originally allowed handgun-carry permit holders to go armed in local parks but now also lets them go armed in the state "Capitol complex."
"It was poorly drafted and it jeopardizes the entire bill," House Speaker Beth Harwell, R-Nashville, told reporters during a news conference with other top GOP leaders Thursday. The amended bill will come up again in next week's House session.
Harwell said the amendment would impact "all the security we have everywhere. It's not just the Capitol. It's all the buildings surrounding the Capitol. Obviously it was not offered in a constructive fashion." State safety officials "would have to have extra people down there" to check people's state-issued handgun carry permit cards, she added.
Harwell also said it could draw a veto from Republican Gov. Bill Haslam, who already has concerns about the guns-in-parks bill.
Senate Democratic Caucus Chairman Jeff Yarbro on Wednesday offered the amendment to Republican legislators' push to overturn local bans on guns in parks. House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga, said the objective of the amendment "was to kill the bill."
"It wasn't meant to be constructive and to hold us accountable like the rest of the state. It was to kill the bill," McCormick said.
When offering the amendment, Yarbro said it would be hypocritical if the GOP-dominated Senate were overriding local government bans on parks but refusing to allow the permit holders to come armed to the state Capitol, Legislative Plaza and related buildings.
The park bill's Republican sponsor initially sought to table the amendment, but sensing discomfort from GOP colleagues, withdrew the motion. The amendment passed 28-0 and the guns-in-parks measure and at the Capitol passed 26-7, sending the bill back to the House, which previously had passed it.
Asked about allowing permit holders to carry firearms into the Capitol, Republican Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey told reporters Wednesday that "I have no problem with that. Let's think this through logically. ... [S]omebody's going to commit a crime and going to show their photo ID, gun-carry permit, as they walk through the Legislative Plaza and going to do harm? No."
Permit holder applicants undergo criminal background checks,Ramsey said.
House Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Stewart of Nashville said at Democrats' news conference on Thursday he opposes guns in parks and at the Capitol.
"I think it's absolutely not an insignificant risk that in the heated exchanges that go on between people that come up to advocate for opposite sides of bills that somebody could pull out a weapon," he said.
The House Democrats continued to lambaste the guns-in-parks provisions and complained that Republicans cut them off when seeking to debate the bill earlier this week when it passed the House sans the amendment.
House Republican leaders in their news conference grew testy as reporters kept seeking details about the underlying guns-in-parks bill. Those questions included how it would impact schools that use parks, playgrounds and ball fields not on school grounds as well as the Democrats' complaints and gun-safety issues.
"I would only submit that those who want it to be confusing say it's confusing," said Republican Caucus Chairman Glen Casada of Franklin.
Some schools utilize public parks and playgrounds for school athletic activities. Casada said permit holders would be banned from bringing firearms to those parks even if the park involved just one event per year.
"I think if schools want to, they can post [a ban]," Casada said and pointed to a different section of existing law that pertains to schools. "This is a school operated park. ... Owned, operated or used are the three words" in that section.
Lawmakers and groups including the National Rifle Association say the current law, which leaves whether permit holders are allowed to go armed in parks up to the local municipality's discretion, is confusing because some communities allow it while others don't. Sometimes there can be a greenway where permit holders are allowed, but it intersects with a park where guns are not allowed, they say.
The NRA is holding its national meeting in Nashville next Friday and GOP leaders acknowledge they'd like the bill to pass by then.
Speaking Thursday, Harwell also noted that because the amendment "would put a fiscal note on it," due to increased security, it would have to go back to the House Finance Committee.
Asked by reporters about critics' contentions that an accidental discharge at a park poses a danger, Casada said "there's accidents with bicycles in parks. Should we outlaw bicycles?"
Asked if he was saying a gun is as safe as a bicycle, Casada said, "if used properly I am. If used properly." Accidents with guns are similar to accidents with bikes or cars, he said. "They're acts of God. They're beyond our control."
The leaders became increasingly agitated that reporters were focusing on the gun issue in the first news conference since the session began in January.
"I don't think you're presenting, I think you're advocating," McCormick said. "Is this the only thing that's important to you today?"
Tennessee Capitol Hill Press Corps Chairwoman Andrea Zelinski said reporters were doing their jobs.
"Twelve weeks into the legislative session, this was the first time House Republican leaders held a news conference to speak at length about bills they wanted passed into law," she said. "Our job is to ask questions of public officials."
Contact staff writer Andy Sher at email@example.com or 615-255-0550.