Sunday column: On God, guns and political catchphrases

A bill to declare the Bible Tennessee’s official state book may be shunned faster than Gov. Bill Haslam’s Insure Tennessee plan by the 109th General Assembly, but another proposed symbolic gesture — declaring the Barrett Model 82A1 the official state gun — should inspire some lively debate.

And, speaking of symbolism in state government doings, it’s notable that the governor chose as an official theme for his fifth State of the State speech, delivered last week, the phrase “full speed ahead” with his initial legislative effort of the year, Insure Tennessee, seemingly dead in the water.

That might seem curious, but it’s apt in some respects — at least as much as the themes of his other speeches: “the new normal,” or “believe in better” or “Tennessee is different.”

Haslam is going full speed ahead in efforts to re-brand and revise Common Core education standards, over the consternation of some members of the Republican supermajority, and his legislative package includes some dramatic revisions to salary and benefits of state employees — a follow-though to the repeal of the state’s civil service system enacted during his first term with unanimous Republican support.

And he’s proposed increasing state tax collections by closing loopholes. This is unlikely to win unanimous support from GOP legislators, who fear anything that might be construed as a tax increase.

The governor has taken no position on the discussion of God and guns, both having widespread legislative support. The Tennessee Blue Book devotes about 20 pages to describing official state stuff —18 items under the category of official state “flora and fauna,” nine official state songs and a long list of rocks, poets, artists, etc.

Rep. Jerry Sexton, R-Bean Station, proposed in HB615 making the Bible Tennessee’s official book. There’s actually not such a thing now, though unofficially the Tennessee Blue Book, printed at taxpayer expense by the Secretary of State’s office every two years, might come close.

The problem for Sexton’s proposal is Article I, Section 3 of the Tennessee constitution, which includes a declaration that “no preference shall ever be given, by law, to any religious establishment or mode of worship.” A law giving the Bible official status over, say, the Quran, could reasonably be construed as showing a preference.

On the guns front, Rep. James “Micah” Van Huss, R-Jonesborough, and Sen. Mae Beavers, R-Mount Juliet, have filed HB677 to designate the Barrett Model 82A1 as Tennessee’s official state firearm. It’s a semi-automatic rifle, available in .50 and .416 calibers, which would be categorized as an assault rifle under some definitions.

No state constitutional concern here. Article I, Section 26 grants Tennesseans a right to keep and bear arms while giving the Legislature authority to regulate “wearing” them “with a view to prevent crime.” But surely there should be some concern about giving this modern weapon preference over historic Tennessee guns. Davy Crockett carried “Old Betsy,” a flintlock muzzleloader, during his legendary exploits. And there’s the bolt-action 1917 Enfield used by Alvin York in winning a World War I Congressional Medal of Honor. A statute on the state Capitol grounds depicts him taking aim with the rifle.

Ronnie Barrett, founder of a gun manufacturing company and developer of the rifle that bears his name, is a Tennessean and occasional donor to Republican politicians — he also is married to a former Republican state legislator and generally regarded as a fine fellow who has hosted shooting events for state lawmakers.

A Google search indicates that six other states now have official state firearms. Alaska chose the pre-1964 Winchester Model 70 last year, apparently the most modern official state weapon. Indiana chose an individual rifle kept at the home of President William Henry Harrison made in the early 1800s.

This is a weighty symbolic and historical matter that deserves full legislative debate — and a governor taking a stand. Is Tennessee different? Is ignoring the state’s gun history to become a new normal? Maybe this could be a business-friendly thing to do. But one has to believe in better, historically speaking.

The heck with all that other stuff. Where does the governor stand on the Barrett Model 82A1 — full speed ahead or not?