NASHVILLE — Advocates for a bill that would make it a crime for adults to leave loaded weapons accessible to children pointed on Tuesday to this week's shooting death of a toddler in Hamilton County as an example of why the law is needed.
"Just yesterday in Apison, Tenn., outside of Chattanooga, a 3-year-old was shot and killed in his family's car outside the family's home," Beth Joslin Roth, policy director for the Safe Tennessee Project, told reporters in a Legislative Plaza news conference.
"We are awaiting more details" on the Apison death, Joslin said, "but if this child accidentally shot himself or was shot by a sibling, that would be the second child so far in 2016 that has died in this way. Three other Tennessee children have been injured in unintentional shootings so far this year."
Meanwhile, Hamilton County Sheriff Jim Hammond's office still isn't providing details on Monday's death of 3-year-old Gavin Pittman, whom they say was shot and killed outside his home in Apison.
The sheriff's office won't say whether the child shot himself or was shot by another person. Nor will it say whether the shooting was accidental or discuss what type of weapon was used.
Gavin was inside the family's minivan when he was shot at 9:18 a.m., sheriff's spokesman Matt Lea said. But Lea declined to provide further details, citing the ongoing investigation.
At the state Capitol, proponents are pushing a bill they call "MaKayla's Law," named after an 8-year-old Jefferson County girl killed last year by an 11-year-old neighbor because she wouldn't let him play with her puppy.
The boy used his father's shotgun, authorities have said.
The MaKayla bill, which borrows from National Rifle Association gun-safety recommendations, came up in the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday evening.
A lobbyist for the National Rifle Association, Erin Luber, voiced reservations about the bill but did not outright say the gun-rights group would fight it at this point.
Sen. Sara Kyle, D-Memphis, the bill's sponsor, asked for a two-week delay on a vote to see if she can make changes to address some concerns.
Earlier, MaKayla's mother, LaTasha Dyer of Mascot, Tenn., testified, telling lawmakers her daughter "was always full of laughter, she always had a smile on her face. Always in a good mood. She loved everybody."
"I know I'll never fully get over the loss of my little girl, but I stand behind MaKayla's Law a hundred percent, not only because she's my daughter but I believe we need to take action and support this bill that encourages responsible gun owners," Dyer said.
Dyer stressed she's "not against guns in any way. We are gun owners. But we understand that owning a gun means taking responsibility for your guns when kids are around. This is just common sense. Too many Tennessee kids are hurt and killed because people don't store their guns securely."
Kyle told Judiciary Committee members that Tennessee last year had 25 shootings involving children "resulting in 10 preventable deaths."
"Will passing this bill prevent every tragedy? Of course not," Kyle said. But she added "this bill will make more gun owners think about storing their guns."
She noted no criminal charges were brought against the boy's father and stressed to pro-Second Amendment Senate colleagues the bill "isn't trying to prevent anyone from owning a gun."
Criminal consequences for reckless behavior will make adults think, Kyle said, noting 27 states and the District of Columbia have some type of law regarding safe, secure storage of firearms.
Luber stressed the gun-advocacy group's safety courses aimed at both adults and children. But, she said, "there's unfortunately no one-size-fits-all that can meet the needs" and later added, "the NRA believes education is the way."
Sen. Janice Bowling, R-Tullahoma, a vocal gun-rights proponent, agreed that "one size does not fit all. And I don't think this particular bill is saying there's only one way. It's saying to keep it out of the reach of the children."
She said parents, other relatives and friends must share responsibility in ensuring weapons are kept away from children.
Luber said, "We do take the position that it is the gun owners' responsibility to seek information, education and training on how safely to store firearms and not the state's position to require a firearm owner to do so."
The bill would make it a crime for an adult to "recklessly place, leave or store in plain view and readily accessible to a child under 13 [a gun] if the gun is left unattended," provided the gun is not under the owner's control and the weapon is either loaded or ammunition is immediately nearby.
It would not apply if the gun has a trigger lock or similar device or is being stored in a locked cabinet or secure container accessible only by the owner or the owner's spouse.
An adult would be charged with a Class A misdemeanor if a child under 13 manages to obtain a gun under those circumstances but does not fire it or allow someone else to fire it. Adults face a class E felony if the child fires the gun or permits another person to and someone is wounded. If the discharge results in a death, it's a Class C felony punishable by up to 15 years in prison.
Staff writer Shelly Bradbury contributed to this story.
Contact Andy Sher at email@example.com, 615-255-0550 or follow via twitter at AndySher1.
This story was updated March 1 at 11:25 p.m. with additional information.