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Guns-in-Parks Bill Gets Tennessee Governor's Approval

Republican Gov. Bill Haslam on Friday signed into law a bill that immediately overrides city and county bans on permit-holders bringing firearms into local parks, playgrounds and ballfields.

By Andy Sher

Republican Gov. Bill Haslam on Friday signed into law a bill that immediately overrides city and county bans on permit-holders bringing firearms into local parks, playgrounds and ballfields.

As soon as he put down his pen, the governor was caught in a crossfire between advocates and critics.

House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh, D-Ripley, tweeted that "Not vetoing #GunsinParks is an absolute failure of leadership."

But Chris Cox, in charge of the National Rifle Association's political arm, called the law an "important measure [that] advances Tennessee's long history of supporting our Second Amendment freedoms."

Haslam wrote to the Senate and House speakers, Ron Ramsey and Beth Harwell, to say that he remains "concerned that an unintended consequence may be operational challenges for local leaders in managing their parks in a safe, effective and consistent manner, due to events and situations that could not have been anticipated in drafting this law."

But Haslam, who consistently opposed such legislation as Knoxville's mayor in 2009 and repeatedly as governor, called this year's final measure a "vast improvement from the bill as originally introduced."

"[T]he final version of the bill made clear that guns are not allowed at school-related activities taking place in parks," he wrote.

Critics disagree and say the law is vague, perhaps unconstitutionally so, and ripe for a legal challenge. The law bans guns "within the immediate vicinity" of school activities in public parks, playgrounds, greenways and ball fields.

But it doesn't provide a precise definition of what "immediate vicinity" means, and there is no exemption in those places when no school-organized activities are taking place.

Sometimes parks and greenways are adjacent to a school. That's the case at Brainerd High School in Chattanooga. Behind the school's grounds sits the South Chickamauga Creek Greenway.

Attorney John Harris, a Second Amendment expert who heads the Tennessee Firearms Association, has long said that the local parks bans were confusing and should go.

But Harris calls the new law "neither simple nor clear" and said it could put law-abiding people in danger of being charged with a felony.

"Acceptable legislation would have simply done two things," Harris said in an email. "First, make all public parks open to handgun permit holders -- no exceptions. Second, delete the language in current law that lets some parks (and for that matter other property -- including your home) be classified as 'school grounds' if the property is ever 'used' by a school."

Instead, he said, "this law generally removes local control over local parks. However, it preserved and perhaps worsened the school grounds 'used' issue so that any park that is used by a school automatically morphs into a prohibited property that can result in a Class E felony conviction if a permit holder is in the park and knew or should have known that a school was using it."

Sponsors said safeguards in the bill require permit holders to be warned that a school activity such as a ball game is taking place and to be asked to leave.

Gun laws have always been a sensitive topic for Haslam. He drew harsh criticism during his 2010 campaign for governor because he was a member of former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg's Mayors Against Illegal Guns group.

Haslam, who is seen to have national aspirations, dropped his membership, but has continued to have rocky dealings with gun-rights advocates.

This year, Republican lawmakers had hoped to pass the bill in time for the NRA's annual convention, which was in Nashville earlier this month. The NRA snubbed the governor by not inviting him.

But Sen. Jeff Yarbro, leader of the Democratic Caucus, challenged what he called Republicans' "hypocrisy" by pushing an amendment allowing permit holders to go armed in the state Capitol complex. It passed in the Senate but was deleted later in a conference committee.

Dominant Republicans have consistently expanded the list of places where permit holders may go armed. In 2009, they agreed to let permit holders carry in state parks but gave locals the option of banning weapons in their own parks.

In 2009, they said permit holders could carry firearms into bars as long as they didn't drink alcohol. Then-Gov. Phil Bredesen, a Democrat, vetoed that bill.

But Tennessee makes it easy to override a veto: the same number of votes it took to pass a bill in the first place, 50 in the House and 17 in the Senate. They passed guns-in-bars again but courts struck the law down, saying it was unconstitutionally vague. So in 2010 lawmakers corrected that and repassed the bill. After Bredesen vetoed it, they overrode him again.

Haslam, elected in 2010, has vetoed three bills, none dealing with guns, and fellow Republicans have yet to override him. That might have changed had he vetoed the guns-in-parks bill.

Senate Minority Leader Lee Harris, D-Memphis, ripped into Haslam for signing the bill.

He said it looks like a "kind of cave-in to the special interest groups, like the NRA, and doing something you're fundamentally against and something you said you wouldn't do and something that you didn't like."

Harris is not related to gun-rights advocate John Harris.

"However you describe the political maneuver, you're left with a political maneuver," Lee Harris said. "That sucks. That sucks for the public that we have to endure politicians who make decisions in this way. That just sucks."

Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke, a former state senator, isn't very happy either, noting that before he became mayor, Chattanooga and Hamilton County governments voted unanimously to prohibit guns in their parks.

"I believe people should decide what's best for their own community," Berke said in an email. "This bill takes local control away from the two legislative bodies closest to the people of Chattanooga and Hamilton County."

In late afternoon comments to reporters, Haslam defended signing the bill.

"I think [lawmakers] worked hard to produce clarity," the governor said.

"One of the things we have to do now is work with local officials to see how that's implemented and I'm going to urge the Legislature a year from now to re-look at that and see what the practical impact has been on our local governments."

(c)2015 the Chattanooga Times/Free Press (Chattanooga, Tenn.)

Caroline Cournoyer is GOVERNING's senior web editor.
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