VOL. 133 | NO. 54 | Thursday, March 15, 2018
View From the Hill
Florida’s Epiphany On Guns Means Little in Tennessee
By Sam Stockard
Memphis resident Stevie Moore has been waging a war to take illegal guns off the streets since someone shot his son in the head with an AK-47 15 years ago.
“It’s my mission to fight these guns whatever way I can,” says Moore, who founded the organization Freedom From Unnecessary Negatives in an effort to steer youth away from violence.
Prentice Moore, 23, died in the arms of his twin brother after a feud over a woman led to a fight, then an ambush at an Exxon on Mendenhall Road where the culprits shot up the brothers’ car, the father says.
The bullet “went through his eye and tore half his head off,” Moore recounts.
With the horror of his son’s death still fresh in his mind, Moore visits the General Assembly in support of Moms Demand Action, a grassroots group pushing “common-sense” gun legislation.
They have plenty of work to do in this Legislature, where state lawmakers are at odds constantly over weapons-related bills, especially in the aftermath of the Parkland, Florida, high school incident in which a former student shot 17 people to death, and the Las Vegas massacre where 58 people died and nearly 600 more were wounded when a man opened fire on the crowd at a Jason Aldean concert.
But in the midst of a national outcry from young people, as well as moves by President Donald Trump to ban items such as bump stocks, which the Vegas shooter used to increase the number of shots he could fire, the Tennessee Legislature is lightening, not toughening, gun laws.
For instance, the House passed legislation recently reducing the penalty for carrying a handgun without a permit to a $250 fine for the first offense and the confiscation of ammunition but not the gun.
In other words, a violator can get another clip and reload instead of asking law enforcement to “gimme back my bullets.”
Under current law, carrying without a permit is a Class C misdemeanor with a fine of up to $500 and possible prison time.
Rep. Micah Van Huss, a Jonesborough Republican, defends his legislation, saying it will help people “protect their families” from the “evil that’s out in the world.”
Of course, Van Huss wants people to be able to carry handguns without a permit, so this is a victory of sorts for him and others who say they believe government shouldn’t be regulating weapons.
Yet it keeps alive the eternal question: Do more guns in people’s hands mean less crime?
Throwing up roadblocks
The same day Stevie Moore and members of Moms Demand Action packed the halls at the Cordell Hull Building to raise awareness of gun legislation in the General Assembly, a bill banning bump stocks in Tennessee hit a wall in the form of the supermajority Republican control.
On the orders of House Majority Leader Glen Casada, state Rep. Mike Carter, a former General Sessions judge, rolled the bump-stock ban two to three weeks in the House Civil Justice Subcommittee.
The move caught the ire of the bill’s sponsor, Democratic Rep. Dwayne Thompson, who had two people lined up to testify, victims of the Las Vegas shooting, both Tennesseans, one of whom made a trip from Dallas to speak to lawmakers.
“They’re experiencing PTSD,” explains Thompson of Cordova in Shelby County. “They were reluctant to do this, but they felt they had to do it to really get the full understanding of this tragedy and have legislators understand the potential for danger of having these devices in Tennessee.”
Thompson says Democrats pleaded with Casada and Carter to let the men speak, but they said absolutely not and told them they could come back in two weeks when the bill is heard.
“They really had worked up this courage to speak to the committee, but they were denied that, to be able to give a better understanding to legislators about the full tragedy, the bodies falling around them, the chaos, the tragedy which I hope never, ever happens in this country again,” Thompson adds, “and we need to pass laws that help to prevent these tragedies from happening in the future.”
State Sen. Jeff Yarbro points out the committee sent the men out of the room “without the common decency” to discuss the matter.
“Those of us who work in and around the Legislature grow numb sometimes to this B.S. But it is unconscionable that we treat problems of people with such contempt and gamesmanship and ignore their problems simply because leadership wants to follow the direction of lobbyists and special interests,” says Yarbro, a Nashville Democrat.
“It’s embarrassing for the state, and no one in the state should tolerate it.”
Rep. Bo Mitchell, another Nashville Democrat, agrees, noting Tennessee seems to be the only state in the country weakening gun laws after Florida buried 17 shooting victims.
“Until people start caring more about the PTA than they do the NRA, we’re not gonna solve any problems. I’m sorry, I’ve got two children in school, so I’m gonna listen to the PTA every time,” Mitchell adds.
Casada defends his actions, saying he wanted to wait until the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms issued a decision on banning bump stocks so the state wouldn’t risk being overruled. He points out the matter involves the Second Amendment, which is regulated by the federal government.
The Franklin Republican, who wields a good deal of authority by vote-counting in the supermajority, says Thompson didn’t tell him he had speakers coming to testify and, thus, pushed the bill to the end of the subcommittee’s calendar, the last day it meets.
Did he step on their opportunity to be heard?
“We did but it was inadvertent. I hope they come back in two weeks,” Casada adds.
Considering the Legislature wastes a lot of time finagling over joint resolutions and worthless bills, the subcommittee could have given these two people six minutes out of their busy lives to speak. After all, their lives were on the line last summer. And, as many a lawmaker has said, you can move the State Capitol with a majority vote.
Oddly enough, bump stocks might be banned by President Trump’s Republican administration with Attorney General Jeff Sessions moving to clarify federal law and include a ban of bump-stock devices under a definition for machine guns, according to reports. Sessions has said the Department of Justice would go for the ban regardless of action by the ATF, which has said Congress would have to enact a ban.
For Casada and others waiting for the ATF, its analysis and public comment period was to take months, according to a report from The Hill. So anyone wanting to speak on Thompson’s legislation better not hold their breath – at least while Casada puts a clamp on the bill.
Waiting is the hardest part
Meanwhile, Gov. Bill Haslam put together a “working group” of legislators and state leaders to review school safety across Tennessee to make recommendations, an effort to avert disaster.
Of course, it includes no Democrats or minorities, who often don’t fit into the Republican-controlled world on Capitol Hill. The group will have to work quickly, too, because the Legislature is hoping to go home in a month.
If nothing is done by that time, legislators will be coming back to Nashville all summer long to jack things up and collect their per diems. Lt. Gov. Randy McNally even mentions the possibility of a special session, though he doesn’t advocate one and hopes executive measures can be taken instead to deal with building security and access, school resource officers and mental health.
The possibility of arming teachers is tossed about, as well, with legislation by Rep. David Byrd, a Waynesboro Republican, allowing private gun-class teachers to provide training for educators selected by administrators in every school district. Byrd, who put his measure on hold to see what comes out of the governor’s plan, really just wanted more school resource officers in his district.
In this atmosphere, most people favor such a move, which could require a good deal of money for salaries. It certainly makes more sense than asking teachers to go through hundreds of hours training to wield guns.
Moore and his wife, Rosiland, say they oppose arming teachers, no matter the motivation.
“We feel there should be another option in how we create safety in our schools, how they enter, how we monitor that, because we’ll have more guns and more killing, and that’s not what we want to do,” Rosiland Moore points out.
With Casada calling the matter a “problem of the heart,” and Democrats tending to say they want to limit guns on campuses and prohibit bump stocks and machine-gun devices, this partisan argument will go on forever and ever.
Fortunately, people such as the Moores have an eye toward both matters, with their organization, F.F.U.N., trying to teach young people how to resolve conflict without violence. Whether they can turn young people in another direction in a world that glorifies violence and weaponry is another question.
But Stevie Moore, with his son’s terrible death in the back of his mind, will keeping trying.
Sam Stockard is a Nashville-based reporter covering the Legislature for the Nashville Ledger, Memphis Daily News, Knoxville Ledger and Hamilton County Herald. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.