By: Andy Sher, TimesFreePress.com
February 25, 2009

NASHVILLE — State records show three Tennessee lawmakers would be personally affected by legislation they are sponsoring, which includes allowing handgun-carry permit holders to bring their weapons into bars or parks and shuts off all public information on who holds a permit.

Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris, R-Collierville, Sen. Tim Burchett, R-Knoxville, and Sen. Doug Jackson, D-Dickson, all have state-issued handgun carry permits, according to Tennessee Department of Safety records examined by the Times Free Press, as well as interviews with some lawmakers.

The three lawmakers are sponsoring one or more of four previously blocked bills coming today before the House Judiciary Criminal Practice Subcommittee.

The four measures recently were recommended by a House handgun study committee chaired by Rep. Joe McCord, R-Maryville, who also has a handgun permit, state records show. Rep. McCord had been listed as a sponsor, but on Tuesday he said he has farmed the bills out to other House supporters.

He said he sees no conflict of interest for himself or any lawmaker with a handgun permit in pushing such legislation.

Frank Gibson of the Tennessee Coalition on Open Government, a nonprofit group with members including the Times Free Press, questioned that stance.

The coalition opposes the bill that makes handgun-carry permit records confidential and subjects anyone publishing the information to fines of up to $2,500.

“It seems to me to be a conflict,” Mr. Gibson said.

The legislation is “not something that would benefit them financially, but it would (impact them) because their information would be closed, too,” he said.

He said making it illegal to publish information about gun permit holders would be an unconstitutional attempt at prior restraint based on a U.S. Supreme Court decision.

“There’s nothing wrong with having a permit as long as they go to the right people,” Mr. Gibson said. “Under this legislation, the public would have no way of knowing whether they (permits) went to the right people.”

Mr. Gibson noted that news organizations have found instances where handgun-carry permit holders included felons. At one point, state Safety Department officials stopped performing background checks on renewals for more than a year after they lost access to a federal data base.

Sen. Jackson is sponsoring the bill that would allow handgun permit holders to bring their weapons into establishments selling alcohol so long as they do not drink. A House amendment provides that permit holders must leave the establishment by 11 p.m.

“I don’t see any conflict (of interest),” Sen. Jackson said, since the measure would impact all handgun permit holders and not just him. “You know, this is about Second Amendment freedoms. We’re going to continue to propose legislation that strengthens Second Amendment rights.”

Sen. Burchett is sponsoring bills expanding handgun-carry permit holders’ ability to bring their weapons into state and local parks as well as another measure that allows them to bring their handguns into wildlife hunting areas and preserves. He said he, too, sees no conflict.

“Not any more than legislation that guarantees my First Amendment rights,” said Sen. Burchett, who in 2006 made statewide headlines after he captured three juveniles at gunpoint. The youths had broken into a warehouse which he utilized in his business.

Efforts to contact Sen. Norris, who is sponsoring the Senate bill, were unsuccessful. Rep. McCord gave the House version of the bill to Rep. Eddie Bass, D-Prospect, a former sheriff, to handle.

Rep. Bass told the Associated Press that allowing the public to see the gun permit database is an invasion of privacy and aids criminals, opening permit holders to burglaries and even endangering women involved in domestic violence who are trying to protect themselves.

That statement drew agreement from the chairman of the House subcommittee which tackles the bills today. Rep. Eric Watson, R-Cleveland, said he will do all he can to shut handgun-carry permit holders’ records off from public view.

“As a former law enforcement officer, I have seen the kind of violence that this knowledge can perpetuate,” said Rep. Watson, a lieutenant over Bradley County’s Criminal and Civil Warrant Team and the Judicial Services Division.

The bill, which died in a House subcommittee last year, is drawing renewed attention after the Commercial Appeal newspaper in Memphis uploaded a copy of the state’s handgun permit holders’ database to its Web site.

Mr. Gibson said no one noticed until earlier this month, when the newspaper directed a reader on its Internet site to the database after he questioned whether a man charged in a restaurant shooting had a handgun permit. It turned out the man did.

Staff graphic artist Beck Towery contributed to this article.

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