By Erik Schelzig, Associated Press
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — An effort to seal Tennessee’s handgun carry permit records from public scrutiny would create an exception for political operatives and lobbying groups to still obtain the entire set of names and addresses.
Republican Sen. Ferrell Haile of Gallatin told the Senate Judiciary Committee this week that his bill is an effort to block the publication of handgun carry permit records on newspaper websites.
“We’re not trying to keep it where it’s not usable, but we want to keep it from being published,” he said.
Political operatives and advocacy groups want to be able to obtain the names and addresses of all 398,000 handgun carry permit holders so they can target them for fundraising and campaign mailings.
Sen. Mike Bell, R-Riceville, said he ran into similar issues when he tried to pass similar legislation years ago.
“My biggest resistance came from members of my own party for this provision, who wanted to continue using it for political purposes,” he said.
Bell wants to strip the loophole for political groups from the current bill, but Haile resisted that move for fear that it would torpedo the entire effort. A vote on the bill was delayed for a week to mull over the options.
Rep. William Lamberth, R-Gallatin, said he prefers his version of the bill that has already cleared the House without exceptions for lobbyists or political groups.
“I like our bill,” he said. “It came out clean over here.”
Both versions of the bill would allow for the Safety Department to confirm whether someone who had run afoul of the law was a permit holder, but only by providing a legal document or other record “that indicates the named person is not eligible to possess a handgun carry permit.”
It’s unclear whether that standard would allow officials to confirm suspended permits or just revoked ones.
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 last five years, 19 percent have had their permits revoked permanently, while 81 percent have had them suspended.
Permits can be suspended while serious criminal proceedings are under way — as in the case of a firefight in the parking lot of a Nashville swingers club that is going to trial in June. In that incident, handgun carry permit holder James Ellis Mason Jr. of Nashville was charged with attempted first degree murder in the shooting of a security guard at Club Menages.
According to police reports, Mason became argumentative with managers after being removed from the club near closing time on Sept. 11, 2011, for drunkenness. When a valet pulled up Mason’s truck, he is accused of pulling a Glock semi-automatic pistol from the door and shooting at club staff and a manager, who returned fire.
The security guard was shot in the chest, while Mason was struck in the wrist and forearm. Mason’s attorney did not immediately return a message seeking comment.
In other cases, permits are suspended only after legal proceedings have worked their way through the courts, as in the case of state Rep. Curry Todd, R-Collierville, whose carry permit was suspended only after he pleaded guilty in January to drunken driving while having a loaded weapon stuffed in the center console of his SUV.
Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey, R-Blountville, an original sponsor of Tennessee’s handgun permit law, said he wants to keep the permits open to the public but find a way to keep the entire database from being published online. That stance was thwarted by a recent state attorney general’s opinion that the state can’t put restrictions on how public records are published.
“The bottom line is that there is no reason they need to be published in a newspaper,” Ramsey said. “That is just sensationalism.”
As a result, the change was made to liken handgun carry permits to voting records, which can be released only to people swearing they will only be used for political purposes.
Ramsey said he may be in the minority among his fellow Republicans in wanting to keep the records open to the public in order to prove that the vast majority of permit holders are worthy of extra privileges afforded to them. He said he opposes provisions that would require documentation of legal troubles before a record was released.
“I don’t like it,” he said. “I’m not one that wants to close it.”
Frank Gibson, public policy director for the Tennessee Press Association, questioned the reasoning for the push to close the records.
“If people can go to Kmart or Wal-Mart to buy a gun, they have a right to privacy,” he said. “But when you go the government and ask for permit to carry it anywhere you go, that’s different. There’s no privacy right there.”