It’s too late for Ben Goeser to care whether guns are allowed in restaurants or bars or wherever in Tennessee. But if his widow, Nikki Goeser, could have legally carried the gun her late husband bought her for protection into the Nashville restaurant where he was murdered on April 2, 2009, she believes that night might have turned out differently, that she might still have her husband.
Nikki and Ben Goeser ran a karaoke business that bounced them from bar to sports bar to restaurant, enticing patrons to lose their inhibitions with some Don McLean or The Eagles or whoever else was listed in the big book of other people’s songs.
The couple’s trouble with a man named Hank Wise began when he started showing up where the couple set up their karaoke shop. They did so every Thursday night at Jonny’s Sports Bar at 5805 Nolensville Pike, near its intersection with Old Hickory Boulevard.
After Nikki said Wise sent inappropriate messages to her through MySpace, her husband approached him during one of the karaoke nights and told him to stop the contact.
For a while, Wise abided the request. That is, until he showed up at Jonny’s one night just over a year ago. Shortly after Nikki spotted Wise — who was talking with Ben — she asked management to have Wise thrown out.
Nikki said that as her husband worked at the karaoke computer, Wise was told to leave. According to an arrest warrant, while being confronted, Wise pulled a .45-caliber Ruger from his jacket and shot Ben once in the head, then fired five more shots into him. Wise’s murder trial is set to begin in November.
“I was a right-to-carry permit holder at the time of my husband’s death,” Nikki Goeser said, “but because of Tennessee state law, I had to leave my legal, permitted weapon locked in my car just outside the front door. And I got to tell you, I wonder every day what the outcome could have been.”
Two weeks ago, state Rep. Harry Tindell of Knoxville introduced an amendment in a House committee that he said would revert this year’s guns-in-bars bill back to a similar version that became law last summer. It also would remove the vagueness that eventually caused a Davidson County chancellor to deem it unconstitutional last fall.
Tindell’s amendment would allow permit holders to carry guns in restaurants serving alcohol but require business owners to post a sign prohibiting carrying when alcohol sales made up more than 50 percent of overall sales. Other owners would also be allowed to post no-gun signs if they chose.
State Sen. Doug Jackson sees what he called “mechanical issues” with Tindell’s amendment, arguing there is no enforcement mechanism in the bill.
“Who assures that? Who oversees that?” Jackson asked. “If they’re required to post but they don’t post, can a permit holder rely on the fact that there’s no posting and walk into that establishment without running afoul of the law?”
Jackson’s companion bill to the House bill that Tindell amended passed the Senate last week, and the full House is expected to have its own debate as soon as this week.
The Senate bill and its companion bill, sponsored by Rep. Curry Todd in the House, would allow permit holders to carry in establishments that serve alcohol provided the establishment is not posted and the permit holder does not consume any alcohol.
Regarding what he called claims of increased violence and crime by the media and opponents of guns-in-bars/restaurants bills, Jackson pointed back to the four-month period between July and November of last year, when the previous guns-in-restaurants law was in effect.
“None of that happened, and that was not a surprise to me,” Jackson said, “because we looked closely at the experience of other states that have had the same or similar laws for many, many years, and they have not had any pattern of problems.”
But for a permitted carry holder who has worked security at downtown bars, concern about allowing guns into places known primarily as drinking establishments is real.
Jacob Calvin, who goes by Nick, has worked security either as an employee or during special events through security firms at many of the downtown bars and clubs, including Bar Flys, Graham Central Station and Fuel.
“I’m a handgun carry permit holder myself, and I’m all about having your Second Amendment rights,” Calvin said. “If I want to have a handgun on me when I want to go have dinner with my family at Chili’s or Applebee’s or a restaurant that has a bar in it, that’s fine if I’m not drinking.
“But to me, if you’re going to a bar — a honky-tonk — and you’re not drinking and you’re carrying a gun, you’re there to shoot somebody. There’s no other reason why you should carry a gun into a thug club or a honky-tonk-style bar that doesn’t really serve food, because you’re not there to have a great steak, and to me, you’re looking for trouble.”
John Harris, executive director of the Tennessee Firearms Association, tagged along with Goeser for an interview with The City Paper. He said while variations of the hot-button guns-in-restaurants/bars bill have been floated since 1996, “The problem always comes down to, how do you define those bad places sufficiently to overcome the vagueness issue that troubled the court last year?”
Jackson wouldn’t speculate about the Goesers’ case specifically, although he left the door open.
“Could a gun have saved Ben Goeser’s life that night? I don’t know, I don’t know,” Jackson said. “I know this: He’s dead today, and he had no chance under the [current] circumstances. And possibly if Nikki had had access to her gun, her husband may be alive.