For almost an hour during a House committee meeting about two weeks ago, legislators, law enforcement officials and advocates on both sides of the gun rights issue debated a hypothetical situation that could play out anywhere in Tennessee.
The scenario goes something like this: A Tennessean with no handgun carry permit, of any description, walks into a fast food restaurant with a gun on their hip, in a jacket or purse. A customer in the store, uncomfortable with the gun being around, calls the police.
In the scenario, the person's only transgression is failing to have a permit for which he or she would be eligible. Yet, under current law, the action could yield a Class A misdemeanor, a $500 fine and up to a year in jail.
Rep. Jeremy Faison, R-Cosby, and other lawmakers say that’s far too punitive for “law-abiding citizens” who were not doing anything else wrong other than being a bit absent-minded. Faison has argued that his wife carries a gun in her purse, and shouldn’t be subject to that steep of a penalty for “trying to protect herself.”
“What I’m trying is get us closer to Constitutional carry, and I feel like it’s a good answer if we’re not going to be able to freely carry a gun,” Faison said.
The issue of Constitutional carry — the idea that basically anyone who’s not a felon can have a gun anywhere except schools, courtrooms and other “sensitive” locations — has been a residual topic in the legislature for years.
Only a dozen states have those laws in place, but proponents like Faison say there’s no evidence crime increases after those laws take effect, and they make a convoluted web of regulations and rules much simpler.
Faison says in the current social and political climate there’s “no chance” of that type of legislation becoming law in Tennessee.
Faison’s current effort, HB1176, has been described as a slightly more stringent version of Constitutional carry, but still has managed to advance through committees despite opposition from both sides of the political aisle, the state’s top law enforcement agencies and Gov. Bill Haslam, and represents a continued effort from rural lawmakers to reduce penalties on gun possession.
The bill is scheduled to face two more big committee tests this week in House Finance and Senate Judiciary, where it could be amended as it has once before or die altogether.
The argument opponents make is also simple: “Are we providing a solution in search of a problem,” asked Maggi Duncan, executive director of the Tennessee Association of Chiefs of Police, who’s testified against the legislation multiple times. “We don't want to create a loophole that gang members and criminals can utilize.”
Duncan says the state’s handgun carry permit is already an open carry permit, meaning there’s no restriction on how or where to carry your weapon. She also points to current and previous measures that have expanded Tennessee’s castle doctrine, which essentially says you can have and use guns to protect your “castle,” which the state has expanded to include vehicles, boats and RVs.
She says the organizations testifying against this legislation fully support gun rights, and says some 600,000 Tennesseans — almost 1 in 10 — already have a carry permit, who are taught in to conceal their weapons.
“It's just safer that way, you don't have people wanting to take your weapon from you,” she said.
But relaxing penalties on gun possession to less than a speeding ticket or seat belt violation could be problematic for police officers in urban communities, where gangs and other criminal activity tend to be higher, and guns are met with more apprehension.
Andy Wolf, a native Tennessean and Army veteran, who now lives on Florida’s Treasure Coast, says he’s an independent gun rights advocate and understands that apprehension many have in urban areas.
“I can understand how it would be alarming for people living in urban settings, but Tennessee is a predominantly rural state,” he said.
Wolf says, in rural settings, guns are often regarded as tools, as opposed to urban settings where they’re seen as dangerous weapons. He also says that no matter what law is implemented, there’s “always room for abuse.”
“We have people slip through the cracks in all areas of life,” he said.
Rep. Mike Stewart, D-Nashville, says places like Nashville and Memphis have economies that depend significantly on tourism, an industry that inherently is predicated on the presumption of safety.
He said he understands that rural communities are vastly different than urban ones in myriad ways, and reducing penalties on gun possession in a rural community “isn’t a big deal.”
“But here, I’m thinking of a property owner who’s used his own money to buy property, develop it, open a restaurant, open a hotel; that property owner needs the right to prohibit people from coming in with firearms,” he said.
He said the proposed legislation would be counterproductive.
“It’s an invitation for people to violate the law,” he said.
Faison’s effort will continue, and likely garner significant support from conservative groups and lawmakers.
“I’m just trying to protect people who are lawfully trying to have a gun,” he said.
Jake Lowary covers Tennessee politics and state government for the USA Today Network. Reach him at 931-237-1583 or follow him on Twitter @JakeLowary.