‘Guns-in-parks’ amended to allow guns at state capitol; passes Senate 26-7

By Lucas Johnson, Associated Press
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — People with handgun carry permits would be able to carry their weapons on the grounds of the state Capitol under a provision inserted into a guns-in-parks proposal that overwhelmingly passed the Senate on Wednesday.

The amended legislation was approved 26-7. The main goal of the bill is to strip city and county governments of the power to ban guns in parks, playgrounds and sports fields, which was the main intent of the bill.

“This is about the right to self-defense, the right to protect yourself where you are,” said Sen. John Stevens, a Huntingdon Republican and the bill’s sponsor.

Under the amendment proposed by freshman Sen. Jeff Yarbro, D-Nashville, licensed handgun carry permit holders could also bring firearms into the Capitol complex, which includes Legislative Plaza and the War Memorial Plaza.

The change was not part of the version the House passed 65-21 on Monday, so the legislation now goes back to the lower chamber.

“The ball is now in the House’s court to figure out what they’re going to do,” Yarbro said.

House Speaker Beth Harwell, R-Nashville, told reporters she hopes the chamber rejects the change to allow guns in the Capitol complex when the bill is heard as soon as Monday.

Yarbro said he brought the amendment to try to eliminate the “hypocrisy” of calling for guns to be allowed on playgrounds but not within the legislative office complex.

“If we’re going to mandate decisions for local government, we should at least apply the same standards to ourselves,” he said.

Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey, R-Blountville, said he supports allowing permit holders to be armed in the Capitol complex as long as they still have to log their IDs upon entry.

“They’ve been through the background check; they’ve been fingerprinted; they’ve paid the fee,” he said. “And if they commit a crime, they’re on record. That’s a security enhancement.”

Currently, community parks, playgrounds and sports fields are among the few areas in Tennessee where local governments can ban people with handgun carry permits from being armed.

When state lawmakers first enacted the law to allow guns in state and local parks in 2009, they let communities opt out if they wished. More than 70 did.

Sponsors of the legislation say the state’s 500,000 permit holders are confused about which parks are off limits.

Republican Gov. Bill Haslam opposed similar legislation in the past, and as Knoxville mayor supported a 2009 city council vote that kept in place a ban on handguns in some of the city’s parks. He said he has concerns about the legislation but hasn’t said whether he would sign it into law.

Note/observation: All five Senate Democrats voted against the bill, joined by two Republicans — Sens. Steve Dickerson of Nashville and Doug Overbey of Maryville. All others voted for the measure (HB995). Stevens initially moved to table Yarbor’s amendment, then backed off to allow debate and the amendment was ultimately approved 28-0.

Senate debate also included some critical questioning of an amendment added in the House (post HERE) that Sen. Mike Bell, for example, said left him a “reluctant” supporter of the bill overall. A potential upshot: The bill will wind up in a House-Senate conference committee, where it will be revised to leave a Republican majority approving — perhaps without Yarbro’s amendment. But that would almost certainly block enactment of the bill before the National Rifle Association convenes its annual convention in Nashville on April 9.