As Julie Tenpenny worked on her laptop last week in Nashville Sporting Arms, the small west Nashville gun shop she owns with her brother, Chris Tenpenny, you could actually watch as the question began to munch away at her brain.
When first asked whether eliminating handgun carry permits would be wise, she didn’t quite understand. It was clear that to Julie, a gun-store owner, the concepts “right to carry” and “permitted to carry” were so linked, such an unquestioned part of the life of a gun owner, that they meant the same thing. But when it became clear what we were really talking about, she briefly expressed support.
“So just eliminate it and just be able to do it like that? Well, yeah,” she said. Then, 18 seconds later: “Well, I don’t know, I actually do have a problem. You should responsibly go through a course that explains the law. You have to know the law and be able to show competency with using your firearm. So I do think the permit
Chris, a self-described pro-Second Amendment conservative, expressed similar dissonance at the proposition.
“There are definitely two trains of thought. There’s the train that says you have the right to bear arms, but with rights come responsibilities,” he said. When asked which one he fell into, he thought for a moment and paused as he gave his answer. “I understand both trains of thought, but I have no problem with requiring people to demonstrate at least real basic competency.”
Julie put it more strongly.
“You are putting other people in danger by ignorantly carrying a gun,” she said.
“Ignorance equates to danger and irresponsibility,” Chris added. But while that would seem to indicate that he had made up his mind, he took issue when Julie compared gun permit requirements with driver’s license requirements.
“But driving is a privilege, not a right, see. That’s where the debate comes in.”
That’s where it’s come in lately, at least, as the 2010 gubernatorial race staggers messily toward the finish line.
The birth of an issue
Bill Haslam, Tennessee’s next governor by predestination, likely didn’t damage his chances by taking one of very few firm policy positions on Oct. 18, when he told a meeting of the Tennessee Firearms Association that he would sign (if not actually campaign for) a bill to eliminate handgun carry permits if the legislature manages to pass one.
It’s a non-issue momentarily. And it’s been one pretty much since 1994, when the state legislature changed the word “may” to “shall” in the then-five-year-old handgun carry permit law. First county governments, then later the Tennessee Department of Safety, were compelled to issue a permit to anyone who passed a background check, paid a $115 fee and successfully completed an eight-hour safety course. It seemed clear-cut, constitutionally sound and most importantly, reasonable enough. An initial records search of the state attorney general’s office by its staff, requested by The City Paper, found no instance in which the office was requested to issue an opinion on a possible repeal of the law since 1989.
As for the why now, attorney and TFA’s executive director, John Harris, said it’s just the political climate.
Then again, like in many other debates this year, some say it’s not so grassroots.
“What I think has happened here is that a zealot group — the NRA and people who have a profoundly misguided view of the Second Amendment — have decided that they’re going to assert their constitutional right to carry, which they don’t understand is not an absolute right. They really start with the assumption that ‘I have a constitutional right to carry a gun everywhere, and now we’ll start talking,’ ” said attorney David Randolph Smith, a leading gun control advocate who successfully argued that the 2009 version of the so-called “guns-in-bars” law was too vague to be on the books. Nashville Judge Claudia Bonnyman overturned the law last year. The General Assembly later passed a version that has thus far remained in state code.
By taking this stand, Haslam may have rung a bell that can’t be unrung for the next governor. In the medium-to-long-run, beginning in January when the 107th General Assembly takes the Capitol, this might turn from one of those things that very few people used to think about into one of those things for which platitudinous yelling is the preferred mode of discussion.
“I thought that he gave an unfortunate response,” Smith said. “I am sure that if he had had time to reflect, he probably would have said that he hopes that the legislature would not pass such a law. As far as the concept of signing a bill that eliminated handgun carry permits, that would put Tennessee in an even more extreme position in allowing guns to permeate the society.”
Harris was also less than pleased with the comment, but for different reasons: He would have liked Haslam to actively support a repeal.
“I interpreted Mayor Haslam to say that he was content with the current system, that he will not be on the front of the line moving to adopt [a repeal],” Harris said. “I think that was as much as we could anticipate him saying at this point.”
And an actual end to required permits is more than Harris said his organization is likely to seek this legislative session.
“It’s doable if the stars align like they did a couple of years ago, when Jimmy Naifeh stopped being speaker,” Harris said. “I just don’t think it’s something that’s going to be — if you had to pick one off of our wish list, I don’t think it’s at the top of our list right now.”
Even if Tennessee handgun owners might someday be allowed to carry without a permit, federally required background checks would still be in place. Beyond that, it depends on what type of law would be enacted and how it would fit into current state code.
If permits are revoked or simply made optional, prospective gun owners would no longer be required to get any training, police wouldn’t have access to the records of hundreds of thousands of gun owners and big chunks of state gun laws written after the establishment of the carry permit would have to be debated again and reworked.
There are two templates for handgun carry permit elimination bills: Arizona-style, enacted last year there, which does not require people to have permits but retains them as an option; and Vermont-style, which writes permits out of state law altogether. Harris said he’d prefer the former.
“The fact that a permit is issued in Tennessee allows Tennesseans to carry in more than 30 other states,” as opposed to Vermont, whose residents can only carry in their own state and Alaska. “And so Arizona, for example, when they adopted their system, put in place a provision that says that those who want permits can apply for them and they’ll be issued.”
Arizona, however, requires gun owners to have a permit to enter certain places, such as restaurants that serve alcohol, which Harris said he would not want to see in a Tennessee law. That, of course, brings the issue to existing, post-permit law, which includes a number of exceptions — carry allowed for permit holders, no carry allowed except for certain permit holders — that account for the existence of permits.
“The exceptions for, say, carrying a gun in a bar are that you have a permit, which carries with it this concept that you’ve been vetted and background-checked and had eight hours of instruction,” Smith said. “So yeah, if the law were changed overnight, you’d also have to change all the other laws. Otherwise, you wouldn’t have any right to carry in a bar, in a park, all these other laws that they’ve ginned up to create an exception.”
That could be taken care of on the front end, Harris said.
“I think it would all have to be looked at in one omnibus bill,” he said. “I think the whole system would have to be re-evaluated.”
And simplified, which to Harris would mean allowing people to carry most anywhere: parks, restaurants, perhaps even schools. Justifying that, Harris points to a relatively clean record on the part of permitted gun owners.
“I think that in general, the people who are going to commit crimes and are likely to commit crimes aren’t going to bother with getting permits,” rendering permits and bans on carrying largely meaningless. But Smith points to data from the Violence Policy Center, which recently released a report showing more than 200 murders committed by carry permit holders between 2007 and 2010.
“In Tennessee, there are handgun carry permit holders who have shot people and killed people and wounded people,” Smith said. “So the concept that a handgun carry permit holder is any more law-abiding than anyone else is ridiculous. They’re human beings.”
And, he said, for those cases, why take an investigative tool from law enforcement? Indeed, as was the case with the Association of Arizona Chiefs of Police during permit debates last year, law enforcement officials have shown a pattern of opposing legislation that expands handgun ownership and carry rights. Harris said he doesn’t think that should matter here.
“Back when our nation was founded and the constitution was debated, comments were made and well received that those who sacrifice liberty for personal safety deserve neither,” Harris said. “Law enforcement has done a good job in Tennessee over the past 50 years or so, advancing legislation which makes their job markedly easier but has done so, in many respects, without regard to fundamental constitutional rights.”
As for the training issue, Smith said that he would like to see more training, rather than less or none, for prospective handgun owners. When he was originally arguing the 2009 guns-in-bars bill, a frequent argument used by politicians supporting the law was rooted in what they characterized as a stringent permitting system. Smith said he anticipates that, should a debate on required permits come up, support for their elimination might, ironically, come from many of those same people.
“If you buy into what I would call the somewhat flawed logic that the handgun carry permit system allows some level of protection, that is completely inconsistent to the claim that we don’t need permits at all,” he said.