As much of Tennessee reeled from the record-breaking flood, state lawmakers remained dry atop Capitol Hill last week and dealt with dispatch with the most pressing issue of the day. Yes, as the folks back home were losing their homes and livelihoods to the disaster, legislators passed yet another law to let our 270,000 state-licensed gunmen take their firearms into places that serve alcohol.
This time, they dropped the pretense that they were acting on the demands of their constituents. An MTSU poll, in fact, showed last year that 80 percent of Tennesseans are against mixing guns with booze. Law officers are against it too, and so are restaurants, hotels and essentially the state's entire tourist industry.
No, this time lawmakers made it clear they were kowtowing to the almighty National Rifle Association—and proud of it!
To the surprise of even some of the most jaded political observers in Tennessee — the grizzled denizens of the legislature's pressroom — House Republicans invited a very special guest to attend their normally closed caucus meeting just before the guns-in-bars vote. It was NRA lobbyist Heidi Keesling. Her message? Vote for this, or the NRA will not look kindly upon you in November's elections.
Say no more. Just like that, the bill went whizzing to the governor's desk (having already cleared the Senate).
Heidi's friendly warning caused nine lawmakers to flip their votes. In committee, they were for an amendment that would have prohibited guns in bars but still allowed them in restaurants that happen to serve alcohol. For years, that has been the stated purpose of the bill's advocates: Let handgun carry permit holders take their weapons into O'Charley's and Chili's and TGI Friday's, where people are eating and at least some of them aren't drinking, but not Tootsie's Orchid Lounge or the Possum's Den, where everyone is getting knee-crawling drunk.
But that wasn't good enough for the NRA, which demanded this no-holds-barred law that will open every honky-tonk, saloon and backwoods dive in the state to any yahoo with a state permit and a handgun on his hip.
House Speaker Kent Williams admitted he was taken aback when he walked into the caucus meeting to discover the NRA lobbyist there. After he made his secret deal with the Democrats to take power last year, Williams himself was barred from the caucuses for some time. But there was the NRA lobbyist getting the red-carpet treatment.
"I was shocked," Williams said.
Even Rep. Joe McCord, a big gun guy, was so disgusted he rose on the House floor to castigate his colleagues. A Republican from Maryville, McCord isn't running for reelection, and that seems to have made him honest and courageous.
"Essentially — I'm not quoting; these are my words — the NRA is saying to us, 'If you don't support and vote for carrying guns in bars, we will not endorse you and will in fact oppose you,' " McCord said. "I've got a strong history of supporting and advocating for the NRA, but this line of reasoning is just bordering on lunacy.
"Your preacher, your teacher, your spouse, your parents—nobody's 100 percent right. The NRA is not right here, and we're not standing up to them. ... It makes me wonder, what line will we not cross for the NRA? I'm just curious. At what point do we say this is too much?"
This guns-in-bars bill aims to overcome a court test. Davidson County Chancellor Claudia Bonnyman tossed out last year's law as too vague to be enforced. It supposedly allowed guns only into establishments that earn more than half their sales revenue from food, not booze. But since nobody could figure out which ones were which, citizen gunmen were apt to run afoul of the law accidentally.
So this year's version allows guns everywhere, period. That's easy to understand. Still, the lawyer for restaurants and its workers says he'll challenge the law anyway based on two arguments left over from last year's complaint.
First, attorney David Randolph Smith says he'll contend it violates an OSHA regulation against recognized hazards in the workplace. Do you think OSHA would recognize a loaded gun in a bar full of drunks as a workplace hazard?
Second, because any business still can ban guns by posting a sign, that makes it an unconstitutional delegation of police power, Smith says.
"Memphis passed a law saying you could not have a horse-drawn carriage, basically shitting horses, within 100 yards of a restaurant unless the restaurant said it was OK," Smith explains. "That was held unconstitutional because the court said, hey you cannot delegate health, safety, police powers by leaving it to the willy-nilly whim of a restaurant owner to decide whether the law's going to apply. The same analysis should apply here."
The NRA contends 30-something states have adopted this same law. But according to Smith, who's done his own survey, Tennessee will become only the second state in the country to expressly state in a statute that guns in bars are great.
The other is that renowned hotbed of advanced thought, Arizona.