Legislature’s End Game on Guns: No Rules at All?

By Sam Stockard

If you think the state Legislature is full of gun nuts, Rep. Micah Van Huss begs to differ.

“No, not at all,” Van Huss says when asked if the General Assembly is too pro-gun. “I don’t think they’re pro-gun enough. In fact, … I think our laws in Tennessee infringe on our constitutional rights. There are now 16 states – we’ve added two or three this year – that allow constitutional carry. So, we’re falling behind.”

Van Huss, an East Tennessee Republican who served in the Marine Corps, passed two gun-related bills in the Legislature this year. One exempts people with small arms or combat pistol training from firing range education needed to get a handgun carry permit. The other allows people to carry loaded guns on boats (exactly the place to be when taking target practice).

And while the soft-spoken Van Huss is certainly happy with those victories, his bigger target is “constitutional carry,” which would allow people to openly carry handguns without a permit as long as they fall into other categories, such as hitting age 21 and avoiding felony convictions.

Van Huss contends the Constitution allows for the right to carry a weapon, and he argues a 1943 Supreme Court case, Pennsylvania v. Murdock, said the government can’t take a liberty, attach a fee to it and license it.

He presented a “constitutional conceal carry” last session that failed. It’s the third time he’s sponsored such a measure in his five years in the General Assembly.

“It’s not to expand their Second Amendment rights. It’s to un-infringe our Second Amendment rights. I’m not bringing this to give us extra rights,” he says. “I’m bringing it because I think that Tennessee has violated our constitutional rights by saying that we have to have a permit just to be able to carry a firearm, which is something our Second Amendment guarantees.”

Meanwhile, Rep. Jeremy Faison, another East Tennessee Republican, pushed legislation this year just a step away from constitutional carry before it was defeated in the Senate.

It would’ve reduced the penalty for carrying a handgun without a permit and with the intent to go armed to a Class C misdemeanor with a $25 fine for the first offense and $50 for subsequent offenses, in addition to requiring a citation instead of arrest.

Faison says Gov. Bill Haslam’s administration was “nervous” about the bill and fought him several times in the Civil Justice Committee where it was recommended for approval. The Senate, consequently, had little appetite for passing it.

Known for calling his neck of the woods “God’s country,” Faison hails from Cosby in the Great Smoky Mountains, and he makes no mistake about the importance of this legislation.

“It’s a vital thing for me in East Tennessee, and I’ll always fight for gun freedoms. But I understand, Tennessee as a whole, there’s people nervous about it in Nashville and Memphis and Chattanooga,” Faison points out.

“I get that, and the legislators that are from those areas are more apprehensive to take restrictions off guns, as opposed to somebody like where I’m from.

“Look, where I’m from, up until recently everybody had a gun on their rack in the back window of their truck. So, I’m from a completely different area, and I represent different people. I get it.”

Faison also adds numerous states allow constitutional carry of weapons. But while Van Huss isn’t certain this is a rural vs. urban battle in the General Assembly, Faison says it probably is.

“I would say so. I notice the people who are apprehensive about it are people that are from more of an urban setting, so it makes them nervous,” he points out.

Urban outlook

Nashville Democratic Rep. Mike Stewart tried to pass legislation this year requiring all firearms sales or transfers to be done by a federally licensed dealer.

It failed in the Civil Justice Subcommittee, despite his efforts to show selling a gun in Tennessee is as easy as selling lemonade and cookies. He set up a stand outside the Legislative Plaza one day, after purchasing an AK-47 look-alike the night before without going through a background check.

“There’s no reason anymore we shouldn’t have a background check required,” says Stewart, who also brought a rifle inside the Legislative Plaza in 2016 to demonstrate how easy it is to carry guns in these parts (Pro-gun lawmakers, some of whom probably carry a gun in the Plaza, acted as if he was going to open fire).

“There’s no reason that people should be able to pick up a gun if they want to commit a crime within an hour … with no background check. It’s crazy.”

Stewart says he believes the gun-bill movement within the Legislature is driven by gun manufacturers that say people should carry weapons everywhere, thus the move for constitutional carry, guns in boats and guns in bars.

Unfortunately, he adds, “an open-minded approach” isn’t following to ensure people with mental illnesses and criminal records and terrorist supporters don’t have easy access to weapons.

The Desert Storm veteran doesn’t understand, either, why gun enthusiasts wouldn’t support background checks, since about 80 percent of Tennesseans favor them. Stewart doesn’t see any conflict, either, between his legislation and other gun bills, because his measure “enhances” them.

In other words, if you’re going to allow guns in boats during a Saturday afternoon outing on Percy Priest Lake, a bill he didn’t support, the state should at least try to make sure the guns aren’t in the hands of a “bunch of gang members,” he explains.

From a political standpoint, Republicans haven’t picked up seats over Democrats because of gun legislation, Stewart notes. Instead, he contends, the GOP attacked Democrats linked to unpopular political figures (apparently referring to former President Barack Obama). As a result, Republicans hold wide supermajorities in the House and Senate.

Yet, Stewart concedes they’ve used guns as a “wedge issue” in some districts nationally and in Tennessee.

Democrats hold only a couple of rural districts statewide. And Stewart, chairman of the House Republican Caucus, agrees guns are a rural vs. urban issue.

“I think most rural people, if you polled rural people, you’d find that many are for very open gun-carry laws. Urban people who have so many more people around that they don’t know are more concerned about it and want more restrictions,” Stewart says.

“But rural or urban, just about every normal person in Tennessee believes that you should have a background check to buy a gun. It’s very hard to find people who don’t believe that outside of the Republican Caucus in the Tennessee Legislature.”

Stewart might have forgotten about one of the Legislature’s biggest pressure groups, the National Rifle Association. It’s given only about $5,000 to lawmakers in the last couple of years, but in 2012, it was a major player, doling out nearly $57,000 and helping oust former Republican Caucus Chairman Debra Maggart because she had the gall to vote against the guns in trunks bill that affected Tennessee businesses’ property rights.

Maggart was defeated by Rep. Courtney Rogers of Goodlettsville, who votes NRA and tea party all the way.

Contributing factors

While the rural vs. urban battle is a dividing line on firearm legislation, cities are in the cross-hairs because their legislators are outnumbered.

Thus, anti-city measures take root such as Rep. William Lamberth’s legislation putting the onus on local governments, mainly Nashville, by requiring security measures in public areas such as the bus terminal and city buses when it prohibits guns there.

Lamberth, a Portland Republican and former assistant district attorney, argues the new law “levels the playing field for our citizens when they are trying to protect themselves and their Second Amendment rights, which are enshrined in our Constitution.”

Of course, it could require local governments to pay triple attorneys’ fees rather than damages if governments “trample” on their Second Amendment rights.

Still, Lamberth calls it a commons-sense remedy for the guns-in-parks legislation previously passed by the Legislature, one that would have prohibited gun restrictions at places such as the Titans’ Nissan Stadium and Bridgestone Arena, even if they have tough security.

“What this does is codifies the best practices they have been put in place, such as a security doing a bag check, some sort of metal detection device and training personal with very clear signage saying no guns allowed in this stadium or arena,” he explains.

Even so, Nashville finds itself again at the will of the state Legislature and with no funds flowing from the state to pay for security, which sounds vaguely like an unfunded mandate, the sort Republicans constantly howl about from the federal government.

Metro Water Services is spending $18,000 to pay a security officer for six months until it finds a permanent solution. Municipal Auditorium is buying metal detectors for $96,000, while extra security will be paid for by organizations holding events there. Nashville Metropolitan Transit Authority is sidestepping the law by inserting the word “unauthorized” before weapons at its facilities.

Hypocrisy is no stranger in the General Assembly, though.

Republican lawmakers recently gnashed their teeth over Metro Council bills prohibiting the use of Davidson County funds to enforce federal immigration law and ending a jail holding-cell agreement with the U.S. Marshals Service.

Such a move would make Nashville a magnet for illegal immigrants, they said, as if it isn’t already.

A close look at gun legislation, however, turns up a bill by Sen. Mae Beavers and Rep. Terri Lynn Weaver prohibiting the use of state and local funds or efforts by employees to enforce federal firearms laws. It went nowhere in 2017, but it will be back next year.

And, no doubt, Beavers, a Mount Juliet Republican, will make it part of her gubernatorial campaign, along with attacks on same-sex marriage and transgender restrooms.

Likewise, Van Huss, who also wants to severely restrict abortion and amend the state Constitution to state liberty comes from Almighty God, not governments, won’t change his tune about guns.

“I don’t intend to stop if my constituents see fit to re-elect me. I do intend to continue to fight to bring constitutional carry,” he says.

Unless he runs for Congress instead of the state House, he probably will win again in Upper East Tennessee. You can bet your .357 Magnum, which is hardly a gun for nuts.

Sam Stockard can be reached at sstockard44@gmail.com.