NASHVILLE (AP) – Before last year's elections, the Senate Republican Caucus obtained a copy of the entire database of handgun carry permit holders in Tennessee. On Wednesday, the GOP-controlled chamber voted to block public access to those records.
The Senate voted 27-2 to pass the bill sponsored by Republican Sen. Ferrell Haile of Gallatin without debate. Those voting in favor of the measure included Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey, R-Blountville, who had previously expressed support for keeping the records open to the public.
Ramsey told reporters after the floor session that he was unsuccessful in finding a way keep the records open while at the same time banning media organizations from publishing the handgun carry records online.
"It could be considered a knee-jerk reaction," Ramsey said. "But it was a reaction, and that's the reason we're here today."
Ramsey noted that state Attorney General Bob Cooper opined earlier this year that efforts to restrict the publication of public records would likely violate the constitution.
"I've struggled with closing the gun records, and I worked diligently and tried amendment after amendment about what could stand up in court," Ramsey said. "We couldn't find a way of doing that and not violating the First Amendment."
The House, which previously approved its version on an 84-10 vote, would have to agree to minor changes before the bill could head to Gov. Bill Haslam for consideration. The Republican governor is expected to sign it after a review, said spokesman David Smith.
The measure would still allow media organizations and others to check the records on an individual basis when someone is charged with a felony or other crime that would make them ineligible to possess a carry permit. But that exception would not apply to misdemeanor charges, like drunken driving or possession of a firearm while intoxicated, until after a conviction led the suspension of a permit.
If that had been the law in 2011, the public would not have been able to confirm that state Rep. Curry Todd was a permit holder when he was arrest on drunken driving and gun charges. The Collierville Republican's permit wasn't suspended until he pleaded guilty earlier this year.
Records of suspended and revoked permits obtained by The Associated Press show that charges have ranged from drunken driving to drug dealing and murder. Of the 4,332 people who have lost their handgun carry privileges over the past five years, 19 percent have had their permits revoked permanently, while 81 percent have had them suspended.
Haile said closing the 400,000-person list is meant to protect permit holders from making their firearms a target for theft. But Frank Gibson, public policy director of the Tennessee Press Association, questioned that explanation.
"There's never been any evidence introduced in the 10 years this has been discussed to show that these records have been used to harm anybody," Gibson said.
Ramsey acknowledged that there have been no known cases of the database being used to target gun owners.
"Probably not, but that's beside the point," he said "It is silly, it is sensationalism. Let's not wait until somebody gets harmed."
The speaker said he did not consider it problematic for his caucus to have requested the database before last year's elections only to close them this year.
"It would have been a double standard in my opinion – and this was offered at one time – to allow a political caucus to be able to get them and nobody else," Ramsey said. "But to say it's closed to everybody, no, that's not a double standard. That's consistent."
Earlier efforts to seal the handgun carry records failed amid complaints from political operatives and advocacy groups who want to be able to obtain the names and addresses of permit holders so they can target them for fundraising and campaign mailings.
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