By Erik Schelzig, Associated Press
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — A House subcommittee on Wednesday shot down a bill to require background checks for all gun purchases in Tennessee.
Rep. Mike Stewart, the bill’s main sponsor, showed off a military-style carbine that he had bought for $750 in cash with no background check. The Nashville Democrat argued that in-person gun sales should be governed by the same rules as buying firearms from retailers.
“Luckily, I am not a member of a drug cartel, I am not on a terrorist watch list, I am not a longtime criminal with a big record of felony convictions and violence,” Stewart said.
Republican members were unimpressed with Stewart’s arguments or his display of the AR-15 style rifle, and defeated the measure on a voice vote.
Republican Rep. Mike Carter, a former judge from Chattanooga, interrupted the presentation by Stewart, a former Army officer who said he carried similar weapons while serving during the Gulf War and in Korea.
“This gun could be loaded — you obviously don’t own one,” said an alarmed Carter. “You do not have it properly safe. Do not point at me if you can’t assure me that gun cannot shoot.”
Stewart assured the panel that the gun was unloaded and that it had been checked and secured by state troopers at the legislative office complex.
Republican Rep. Jon Lundberg of Bristol said that gun sellers shouldn’t be required to conduct background checks any more than someone selling a car should have to check the license or driving history of the prospective buyer.
“I want people to be able to buy and sell,” Lundberg said. “This is silly.”
Stewart’s bill had the support of the Tennessee Association of Chiefs of Police. The group’s president, Knoxville Police Chief David Rausch, called the current laws “baffling” for not requiring background checks in individual sales.
“The sponsor made a great point that he was able overnight to buy a firearm that’s a pretty serious weapon and that it could fall in the hands of the wrong person,” Rausch said.
President Barack Obama in January issued new federal guidance to clarify that anyone “in the business” of selling firearms must get a federal license and conduct background checks on prospective buyers, regardless of where the sales take place.
Previously, many private sellers online and at gun shows did not bother to get licenses, and weapons sales over the Internet have become a booming business. The president’s initiative has been heavily criticized by the National Rifle Association.
Lundberg told reporters after the hearing that adding more background checks wouldn’t have prevented shootings like the one in Chattanooga last year that left four Marines and a sailor dead. The FBI has said that some of the weapons used by Muhammad Youssef Abdulazeez in that attack were purchased legally, and some were not. It is unclear when the purchases were made and whether he was subject to a background check.
Relatives said Abdulazeez had a history of mental illness, made a series of overseas trips and had been arrested on suspicion of driving under the influence of alcohol. In May 2013, he failed a background check for an engineering job at a nuclear power plant in Ohio.
“When you’re dealing with guns, bad guys are going to get those,” Lundberg said.