During the 2010 gubernatorial campaign, then-candidate Bill Haslam held a town hall meeting with members of the Tennessee Firearms Association. One raised an issue close to the hearts of those present: challenging the requirement that armed citizens obtain a permit before carrying a firearm in public.
Even then, Haslam's aversion to direct answers was evident. But the candidate pointed out that the reason expanded gun rights had met so little resistance in the state was probably because of those pesky permits. It was a reasonable response, and it satisfied no one. Pressed further, Haslam repeated that argument, adding that regardless of legal theory surrounding the Second Amendment, he didn't believe that laws doing away with gun permits would pass the legislature.
The crowd pressed harder. After more than five minutes of questioning from an increasingly irritated audience — as can be heard in a recording available on YouTube — Haslam relented. "So, you would support non-permitted carry?" asked an audience member.
"If the legislature passed it and brought that to me, I've said I would sign that, yes," Haslam said, to full applause.
This episode says much about the climate in which Tennessee's discussion of gun control will take place. With the bills nicknamed "guns in bars" and "guns in parks" already on the books — and Republican leaders indicating that some version of "guns in lots" will pass this year — the state has established a precedent for allowing more guns in more places. And the ruling party shows few (if any) signs of altering that course, even in the midst of the national debate touched off by last month's elementary-school shootings in Newtown, Conn.
Simply put, anyone looking to slow that momentum — much less reverse it — would start out on their heels. Indeed, the first policy responses proposed by Tennessee political leaders pose guns not as part of the problem, but rather as key to the solution.
Beating the National Rifle Association to the punch by several days, state Sen. Frank Niceley announced less than a week after the Connecticut shootings that he plans to file legislation requiring a trained, and armed, school resource officer at every school in the state. This would be echoed in remarks made Dec. 21 by NRA spokesman Wayne LaPierre.
Currently, all Metro middle and high schools in Nashville have an armed police officer stationed on campus, as do many across the state. Niceley's proposal would include elementary schools, and would allow a teacher or other member of the school's staff to carry a weapon, provided they received similar training. Sen. Stacey Campfield has said he'll be pushing a similar plan, though the specific details of both are not yet clear.
Both House Speaker Beth Harwell and Gov. Haslam have expressed discomfort with calls from some quarters to ask or allow gun-owning teachers to carry in the classroom. But Harwell tells the Scene she's not opposed to ideas like Niceley's, inasmuch as they require a high level of training for anyone who would carry a gun on campus.
"There's no doubt in my mind that we need security, armed security, in our school systems," Harwell says, speaking by phone just before the New Year's holiday. "This recent tragedy illustrated that in fact we do. That armed person may in fact be a teacher, but it would have to be a teacher trained — a legal gun-carry permit [holder] and one trained for high-stress situations."
But activists like John Harris, the controversial executive director of the Tennessee Firearms Association, remain a constant spur in the side of the state's GOP leadership when it comes to expanding gun rights. And they would like to push things a bit further. Harris, who spent much of last year at odds with Republican legislators, says teachers with carry permits who have gone through required background checks, fingerprinting and photographing show "minimal risk that they're going to cause a problem."
"Why not let them carry?" he says. "And not under Frank Niceley's proposal that they've got to go get some kind of super permit or go through law enforcement training. It might be reasonable for the school to pass some standards that say, 'Teacher, if you've got a permit and you're going to bring a gun in, it needs to be in a locked drawer, a locked safe — you don't need to be wearing it on your hip and you don't need to be twirling it in the room why the kids are taking a test.' But there's a happy medium there where reasonable people could agree that even if it's stored in a car, it's better to have it nearby then to not have it at all."
As for Haslam, his office declined to comment on his apparent 2010 campaign promise, and whether he still holds that view today. In any case, he was correct that it is highly unlikely such an idea would be proposed, much less passed. Since taking office, he has not been asked to live up to his reluctant pledge, and he likely won't be.
But in Tennessee, there's always the chance an elected official will take that statement as a challenge.