By Richard Locker, Memphis Commercial Appeal
June 17, 2009

NASHVILLE — The bill to close public access to records identifying Tennessee’s 220,000-plus handgun-carry permit holders fell three votes short of winning approval in the state Senate on Wednesday night.

It was a reversal for the gun lobby, which has been successful this year in winning approval of several bills to expand the places where permit holders are legally allowed to carry their sidearms, including parks and places where alcohol is served. The bill had passed the House 83-12 in May.

Although the bill is technically not dead, the legislature is struggling to adjourn its 2009 session today and Minority Leader Jim Kyle, D-Memphis, said it will take a two-thirds vote of the 33-member Senate to resurrect it. Although it received a favorable 14-13 vote, it takes 17 votes, a majority, to pass legislation.

The bill’s sponsor, Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris, R-Collierville, said that although it could potentially be resurrected before lawmakers go home for the year, it would be heavily amended.

“It’s possible, but I am bothered by the fact that there are apparently political campaigns and candidates that want to use the database for their purposes. I find that as offensive as data mining for gun control purposes,” Norris said after the vote.

“There is some incentive to get those records closed to a reasonable degree. The senators in the chamber (Wednesday night) were split on what they thought was reasonable and a number of them obviously took a walk. I presented it as the Senate sponsor and did the best I could.”

Gun-carry licensees mounted a huge effort this year to close the records that have been open since the state created handgun-carry permits 12 years ago. The push came after The Commercial Appeal posted a searchable database of permit holders on its Web site last November.

Opponents of the bill — led by Kyle, Sens. Roy Herron, D-Dresden, Joe Haynes, D-Nashville, and Douglas Henry, D-Nashville — sought a compromise and argued that closing public records would set a bad precedent.

Herron presented a compromise amendment, defeated on a 13-19 vote, that would have banned the release and publishing of the database but still allowed citizens and reporters to check the list.

Kyle said the General Assembly has passed several gun bills this year. “This is not a gun bill. This is a bill that closes records of the government from the people. This is about open government and open records. It has nothing to do with guns. The Tennessee tradition we’ve had is of open government.”

Herron argued that totally closing the public records might create a backlash against the carry-permit program. “To make them secret and close them to the public is a serious mistake and a deviation from the underlying law that has worked well for a decade and a half..”

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