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Capitol Hill Conversation: Tennessee Lawmakers Re-examine The State’s Gun Laws

An MTSU poll finds support among gun rights and gun control advocates for more background checks and restricting sales to those with mental illness.
Chas Sisk / WPLN
WPLN (File photo)
An MTSU poll finds support among gun rights and gun control advocates for more background checks and restricting sales to those with mental illness.

Tennessee legislators have once again been revisiting the state's gun laws. Past years have seen them authorize guns in parks, guns in bars, and even on college campuses, though with many restrictions.

So what's next? Nashville Public Radio's Jason Moon Wilkins sat down with statehouse reporter Chas Sisk to talk about that.


WILKINS: This past week saw a number of gun bills debated in committee with two of the most comprehensive and controversial measures failing to move forward. Both of those proposed what is being called "constitutional carry." Does the defeat tell us there really isn't an appetite for that kind of legislation in Tennessee?

SISK: I think it does.

First of all, let's back up f0r a second and lay out what we're talking about. The current law in Tennessee is that you need to have a permit to carry a handgun. That means paying a fee, passing a background check and going through some training. So what they were proposing is essentially permit-less carry.

Gov. Bill Haslam and many state lawmakers, including Republican leaders, say that's a bit extreme. Pretty much all the state's gun laws would need to be revisited, because there's been assumption as they've been loosening the restrictions on where you can carry that the people doing so would be trained.

So, I think constitutional carry's defeat is pretty indicative. It shows that there's a limit to how far lawmakers are willing to go on gun rights right now.

WILKINS: But still, Tennessee has been making incremental moves the last few years on where gun owners are permitted to carry their weapons, and now that may extend to sports stadiums? My birthplace Arkansas debated a measure like this, and they've seen backlash from venue owners and sports organizations.

SISK: Right, and first of all, the proposal in Tennessee is limited only to off-duty police officers. They'd be the only ones who could carry in a stadium, and that's a pretty big difference.

But I do think that backlash in Arkansas is noteworthy. So what happened there is lawmakers proposed letting anyone with a carry permit and who were at least 25 years old bring a gun inside stadiums. And that did not sit well with the SEC. It's basically been cracking down on what you can carry into a stadium. And last week, they convinced Arkansas lawmakers to change course.

It'll be interesting to see if teams and sports commissioners raise red flags about the proposal in Tennessee, even though it does apply only to off-duty police officers. They really haven't weighed in here yet.

WILKINS: One thing this year that has been very confusing for people outside the gun world has been the push for silencers. The claim is it's a health issue?

SISK: Yeah, they call it the Tennessee Hearing Protection Act. That's a good name, right?


SISK: Now, that's an example of a gun measure that has a pretty good chance of passing, because it seeks to chip away at the restrictions on firearms, rather than making a radical change.

Even if this were to pass, there would still be some federal restrictions on silencers, and those would still apply. You have to apply for a permit, and you'd have to go through a background check. And the testimony in the state Senate has been that it can take eight to 12 months to get a federal permit to own a silencer.

Now, that all said, the idea that silencers should be banned goes back decades. The argument is they need to be kept out of the hands of criminals. Someone might still make that case, but as it stands, there really hasn't been much pushback.

WILKINS: Another one that seems minor on the surface but some claim could be introducing a gun law loophole is a bill allowing gun dealers to sell from their private collection. What are the pros and cons here?

SISK: The argument in favor of this proposal is that gun dealers shouldn't have to jump through more hoops when they sell their own guns than other people do. That they shouldn't have to run background checks. "Fairness" is how this proposal's backers put it.

The counter argument is that it could create a loophole. Gun dealers could declare a lot of the firearms that they sell to be part of their private collections.

The state House and the Senate are scheduled to vote on this proposal this week. I think there's a good chance that it passes, and then it's in the hands of Gov. Haslam.

WILKINS: Chas Sisk covers the statehouse. He'll be joining us throughout the legislative session.

Copyright 2017 WPLN News

Chas joined WPLN in 2015 after eight years with The Tennessean, including more than five years as the newspaper's statehouse reporter.Chas has also covered communities, politics and business in Massachusetts and Washington, D.C. Chas grew up in South Carolina and attended Columbia University in New York, where he studied economics and journalism. Outside of work, he's a dedicated distance runner, having completed a dozen marathons
Jason Moon Wilkins