For Nashville’s elected officials, the ongoing discussion about guns, and gun control, is all talk.
That’s not due to political cowardice, though — at least, not entirely. In fact, local governments in Tennessee are expressly pre-empted by state law from enacting new gun regulations. Strictly speaking, they may not regulate “the transfer, ownership, possession or transportation of firearms, ammunition or components of firearms or combinations thereof.”
That bit of state code — which includes a grandfather clause for local ordinances enacted before April 8, 1986 — rules out any Metro action with regard to current top-of-mind gun control measures such as banning assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, and mandating universal background checks to close the oft-cited “gun show loophole.” It also prevents proactive measures related to legislation likely to be taken up by the state legislature, including laws requiring employers to allow workers to keep their guns in cars parked on company lots — which could include college campuses — and placing armed security officers in the city’s elementary schools. (For that matter, it would prevent them from expanding gun rights, as well.)
The quite literal lack of local control when it comes to gun laws calls to mind recent battles over state and local authority to approve charter schools and pass anti-discrimination policies. And among Metro officials, it raises hackles just the same.
“Clearly, what’s happening is the state legislature — they believe in local autonomy and local governance, except when it comes to Davidson County making decisions about our local autonomy and our local governance,” At-Large Metro Councilman Jerry Maynard told The City Paper. “As soon as we make decisions about what’s in the best interests of Davidson County, then we have Big Brother — a state legislature that calls themselves conservative — all of a sudden they don’t believe in local governance, they don’t believe in local autonomy.”
Local governments in Chicago, and Washington, D.C., have famously enacted their own strict gun regulations in the past, though outright handgun bans and other regulations in those cities have been struck down by the Supreme Court. There are 42 states that have “broad pre-emption statutes” granting local governments little, if any, authority over firearms and ammunition regulation, according to the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence.
Maynard, a speculative 2015 mayoral candidate and president of the council’s Minority Caucus, said he supports the Second Amendment but does wish the city had greater authority to enact “reasonable gun regulations.”
“If the Metro Council had the opportunity to regulate guns, I guarantee you we would not have these gun shows, where individuals could sell guns to individuals without a background check, without the necessary framework in place to make sure that people who are felons, or have mental issues, or have a propensity to commit crimes, they wouldn’t be able to get their hands on those weapons,” he said.
“And if we had local autonomy, and authority to regulate guns, I guarantee you we would not have assault weapons or weapons of war in Davidson County. It’s OK to have a rifle, and a shotgun, and a handgun, but to have assault weapons with magazines and clips that can allow a person to shoot 100 bullets in under two minutes, I don’t think Davidson County would allow that.”
As it is, such firearms restrictions don’t seem likely to appear on the state legislature’s agenda any time soon. Nor is an invitation for local governments to go their own way on the matter. Metro reaction to the state’s expansion of gun rights, however, is not without precedent.
In 2009, then-Gov. Phil Bredesen signed a bill allowing handgun-carry permit holders to take their weapons into state, local and national parks. A deal that would have removed local parks from the legislation fell through, but the bill did contain a provision allowing local governments to opt out. Maynard sponsored a bill to do just that, and the city’s ban on guns in its parks was upheld by a slim margin of four votes.
In lieu of a similar option in the future, Metro officials can do little more than pass memorializing resolutions, as several council members noted with a laugh. That’s what they tried amid the guns-in-parks debate, when Maynard sponsored a resolution along with At-Large Councilwoman Megan Barry opposing the policy. The resolution was signed by Mayor Karl Dean, who said at the time that he believed guns in parks and bars were both bad ideas.
Widely considered a potential 2015 mayoral candidate herself, Barry said she would like to see action at the federal and state level in the wake of the recent shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.
“My hope is that all of these legislators will use the tragedies that have happened over the last several months as a wakeup call to bring about thoughtful reform for gun legislation,” she told The City Paper last week.
Two council members who will have a more tangible ability to affect gun-related items soon to be working through the General Assembly — limited though it may be, as they belong to the effectively powerless Democratic Party in the legislature — are newly elected state representatives Bo Mitchell and Darren Jernigan.
Both said they’d wait to see the specific proposals, but that they generally oppose guns-in-lots legislation, siding with property owners’ rights to allow or prohibit guns on their property. Jernigan came out strongly against talk of permitting, or encouraging, teachers to come to school armed.
“I’m against arming teachers,” he said. “I think that’s a knee-jerk reaction; I think it’s going a little too far. Even if they volunteer, the last thing I need is a bunch of George Zimmermans going around — if they wanted to be law enforcement, they would have gone that route. But they didn’t. They’re teachers.”
“As a Metro councilperson, I am just adamantly against arming our students or arming our principals or arming our teachers,” he said. “So if we go down that road, and if the state legislature believes that gun rights are that important, they should allow guns into the General Assembly, to the House and the Senate floor.”
Given that Metro is armed with only a voice, and not a vote, when it comes to guns, many have been waiting to hear the mayor’s. Dean is still not a member of the national Mayors Against Illegal Guns coalition, a fact that has drawn attention. His absence from the list of coalition members, which includes Chattanooga Mayor Ron Littlefield and Memphis Mayor A.C. Wharton, has resulted in speculation that Dean’s presumed political ambitions have factored into his calculation with regards to involvement with the polarizing group.
Indeed, Gov. Bill Haslam had been a member of the group when he was mayor of Knoxville, but defected during the GOP gubernatorial primary in 2009. Haslam claimed then that the move was based on a leftward shift in the group’s goals, and that he never intended to change gun laws as governor. It was widely assumed, however, that the decision was simply a necessary part of running for statewide office in Tennessee.
A blue-city mayor in a state that has only gotten redder, Dean has mostly stayed clear of the debate so far. In an emailed statement, Dean spokeswoman Bonna Johnson said he supported “common sense” solutions that balance Second Amendment rights with public safety.
“Mayor Dean recognizes that the Second Amendment guarantees a right to own firearms, but there are also public safety concerns over where and when people can possess guns,” she said. “As the mayor of a big city, he feels he wouldn’t be fulfilling his commitment to public safety if he weren’t concerned about guns in our parks, bars, universities and schools. There are common-sense ways to approach both protecting the Second Amendment and permitting gun regulations that protect public safety.”