Gun rights advocates and those seeking stricter enforcement and regulation say the state’s laws regarding guns are confusing. Even judges expected to enforce some of the laws have trouble.
Now, there could be more changes on the way.
More than two dozen pieces of proposed legislation that take aim at the issue of gun rights in Tennessee will come up over the next two days in the Senate Judiciary Committee, where the state could take a significant step toward becoming a place that allows almost any resident to carry guns nearly anywhere. Opponents are fearful the moves will lead to more unintentional deaths.
By far the most expansive legislation before the legislature this year is often known as “constitutional carry” and would allow almost anybody except for felons to carry a firearm in all but the most sensitive locations, such as courtrooms and prisons.
Constitutional carry has been growing in popularity in state legislatures, where about 20 states have some sort of legislation that would allow it. About a dozen states have constitutional carry laws in effect now.
In Tennessee, Rep. Andy Holt, R-Dresden, has been one of the most vocal supporters of that effort, arguing that it’s the easiest way to alleviate the confusion.
“The Constitution is extremely clear, but what we’ve done is muddled it up, with trying to add to or burden further what the Constitution clearly states, both at the federal and state level,” Holt said.
In his view, the muddling is adding specific exceptions and additions to the code that add ambiguity and confusion. Many of the bills before the Judiciary Committee would add specific stipulations or clarifications to existing state law.
Other highlights of proposed legislation include:
• A revision to background check requirements, allowing gun dealers to “occasionally” sell guns from a personal collection without a background check.
• A measure, dubbed the “Tennessee Hearing Protection Act," to allow the purchase, use and sale of silencers.
• A requirement that gun owners notify authorities within 48 hours that a gun has been lost or stolen.
• “MaKayla’s Law,” which would amend the state’s reckless endangerment offense to include improperly storing and securing firearms when children access and injure themselves or someone else.
• Civil and criminal immunity for using a handgun in self-defense.
Last week, the House voted 79-12 to expand what is often called the state’s “guns in trunks” law to add boats and all-terrain vehicles. Monday, the House voted 93-2 on a bill that would allow anyone who is granted an order of protection to carry a handgun for 60 days if they weren’t already prohibited from carrying a gun.
Gov. Bill Haslam on Monday downplayed the confusion over the state's gun laws, and said a lot of what the state has done has been to focus on permitting.
“We’ve passed a lot of laws based on permitting — whether it’s guns in bars, guns in parks, etc. — and so we based a lot of the law changes on (permitting),” Haslam said.
John Harris, a Nashville attorney and executive director of the Tennessee Firearms Association, said state law is difficult for even legal experts to make sense of, much less the regular resident who needs to know what’s legal and what’s not.
“The average person, police officer, judge, district attorney, juror (don’t always know) what the law allows you to do and what it doesn’t,” he said.
Harris pointed to the first bill on the committee’s calendar, one sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris, R-Collierville, which would make some felonies more severe if a gun is present. He said that effort is confusing and punishes less-severe felonies, like writing a bad check or filing a false report, unnecessarily just because a gun was present.
“I’m wondering what really is going on with some of these bills,” Harris said.
One of Harris’ staunchest opponents, Beth Joslin Roth, says the same: that state lawmakers often don’t fully consider the effect of the laws they’re proposing and end up amending the laws they pass a year or two later.
She pointed to the “guns in parks” law that was passed in 2015 and blocked cities from adopting their own prohibitions on guns in parks. The bill was a clarification to one passed in 2013, after which gun-related deaths in parks across the state jumped to seven that year — more than the three years prior to the law’s passage combined, she said.
She said there was a correlation, “but if the whole premise was to keep people safer (by allowing guns in parks), it’s not working.”
But Holt said so-called “gun-free zones” have no evidence of working — and in his research shows the opposite — and it is a goal of his to “rid our state of gun-free zones.”
Jake Lowary covers Tennessee politics and state government for the USA TODAY NETWORK. Reach him at 615-881-7039 and on Twitter @JakeLowary.