Tennessee Firearms Association’s John Harris Weighs in on Constitutional Carry and Rates the Three Bills Under Consideration
Live from Music Row Thursday morning on The Tennessee Star Report with Michael Patrick Leahy – broadcast on Nashville’s Talk Radio 98.3 and 1510 WLAC weekdays from 5:00 a.m. to 8:00 a.m. – host Leahy welcomed John Harris of the Tennessee Firearms Association to define the three bills pertaining to constitutional carry gun rights in the state of Tennessee.
Leahy: Joining us in the studio, the man who wrote the first check to get The Tennessee Star started, John Harris! Welcome, John.
Harris: Good morning. Thank you.
Leahy: Do you remember that day I came into your offices and I said, John, I have this idea because we want to start a conservative news site? This was back in January of 2017.
Harris: It goes quite a ways back.
Leahy: Quite a ways back. I said, John, I have this vision. And the vision is to actually report the news that’s the honest reporting of the news from a conservative worldview. And I said I’m talking to a couple of advertisers. And the way that we do this is we’re going to have advertisers prepay for a quarter. Guess who stepped up? The very first guy to write a check to get it to launch us?
Harris: We did that right under the law office that day.
Leahy: We did. We did. I couldn’t believe it when you actually wrote the check. I said, Wow! We’re in business! And then we got four or five other advertisers to do the same thing. So a tip of the hat to the Tennessee Firearms Association and to John Harris’s law practice.
Harris: Thank you very much. Well, yeah. You’ve gone quite a way since then.
Leahy: We sure have. (Chuckles) No doubt mixing it up, telling the truth, whether the left likes it or not, who cares about them.
Harris: Or some on the right.
Leahy: John, now, Tennessee Firearms Association, tell us about the big bill. There are several versions of constitutional carry. That’s the big issue now, right?
Harris: That is the biggest issue that we’re seeing right now. And it’s actually an issue that we’ve had for probably two decades in Tennessee.
Leahy: I was going to say you’ve been trying to get this bill in the form that you want to be passed for about two decades. Persistence.
Harris: It has been.
Leahy: You are persistent.
Harris: We hear about incrementalism, and people don’t understand that we’ve been fighting this vital in Tennessee for over two decades. And actually, we’ve passed this bill in the past on the Senate side. Senator Beavers passed it on an overwhelming vote back in, I think 2014. But, you know, we’ve been perplexed by the fact that since 2010 we’ve had a Republican governor and a Republican supermajority, and yet we can’t even get the bill to the floor for a vote.
And frankly, I don’t think we would have it to the floor for a vote now if it had not been for Bill Lee coming out last February and saying it’s going to be my bill and I’m putting it on the floor. If it had not had the governor’s initiative behind it we would not be having the conversation we’ve had the last two years in Tennessee.
Leahy: So tell us, there are a couple of competing bills?
Harris: There are at least three competing bills.
Leahy: And one of the three is the governor’s bill.
Harris: One of the three is the governor’s bill. And the first thing I want to do before I discuss the bills is to really define what constitutional carry is.
Leahy: That would be good.
Harris: Yes. Because it’s a term that the news media has used a lot. They don’t understand it. But constitutional carry is a concept that says any person who can legally possess a firearm can carry that firearm. You don’t have to have a permit. You don’t have to have a state training requirement. You don’t have to have state licensure or an exam. If you can legally possess it, you can carry it. And not that it’s an exception to a criminal charge, there’s just no criminal charge attachable to it. So that is distinguished from another category of laws called permitless carry.
And permitless carry is a situation where you have a law that makes it illegal for a citizen to carry a firearm, which is what Tennessee has. And then you have exceptions or defenses to that law that carve out classes of people who could carry a weapon, notwithstanding the prohibition on doing so. So you’ve got these two competing concepts. Constitutional carry and permitless carry. Now Bill Lee came out and said he’s introducing constitutional carry last year. But he really didn’t when we saw the bill.
Leahy: Just for our listers, let me just reiterate what the Second Amendment actually says. “A well-regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.” That’s it.
Harris: It’s that simple. And some people get hung up on that preparatory clause about the militia. But the operative clause, as Scalia called it, is the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.
Leahy: Yeah, there’s no qualification to that part of it. The previous clause and the militia we can talk about that a little bit when we get back. But the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed. That’s pretty definitive. And that shall not be infringed.
Leahy: We’re talking about the various constitutional carry bills. There are three out there. One being called the governor’s bill. What’s the status of these three bills right now?
Harris: Okay, the best bill is probably the one filed by Representative Chris Todd, House Bill 1388. It simply deletes the statute that says it’s a crime to carry a firearm with the intent to go armed. It leaves provisions in that say, if you’re a convicted felon and you’ve got a gun, those criminal penalties still exist. But for the average, everyday citizen, it just deletes the statute.
Leahy: That is Representative Chris is from Jackson, right?
Leahy: He’s been in studio sitting in your very seat.
Harris: He is a great guy, and we’re really proud to have him up there and working with us. And so his bill just recently started moving.
Leahy: Where is that bill right now?
Harris: It is in the House Criminal Justice subcommittee.
Leahy: In a subcommittee. Is it anywhere in the Senate or is it going to go through the House first?
Harris: It is not even moving in the Senate. We expect the Senate under McNally’s direction is going to send all the bills except for the governors to the general sub, which is an easy way of saying the McNally is going to kill the bills.
Leahy: Got it. Okay, so that Chris Todd bill going through the House doesn’t have a Senate sponsor.
Harris: It does have a Senate sponsor. Janice Bowling.
Leahy: But it’s not moving.
Harris: It’s not moving. And that’s largely McNally’s directive.
Leahy: Lieutenant Governor Randy McNally.
Harris: And I think what will happen with even on the House side is that it’s got a little over a two million dollar fiscal note and they’ll put it behind the budget, which means it’s effectively dead.
Leahy: Okay, so that bill, although you think it’s the best, does it have good prospects of passing it?
Harris: It doesn’t. And part of the reason I say that is the second-best bill is House Bill 18 by Representative Bruce Griffey.
Leahy: Now, the second-best bill, is that the governor’s bill?
Harris: No, it’s not.
Leahy: Okay, so we have three bills. The first best bill is not the governor’s bill.
Harris: No, it’s not.
Leahy: The second best bill is not the governor’s bill.
Harris: No, it’s not.
Leahy: I’m guessing then the third-best bill…
Harris: Is the governor’s bill.
Leahy: Also known as the worst of the three.
Harris: The worst of the three. (Leahy chuckles) And I will say this in all, candor. If it passes as to this constitutional permitless carry concept, it is slightly better than the situation we have now.
Leahy: Okay, the worst of the three bills is slightly better. That’s not exactly a ringing endorsement John. (Laughs)
Harris: No, it’s not, because there’s so much negative baggage to the bill. One thing, for example, is it’s not even really a permitless carry bill.
Leahy: Before we get to the governor’s bill, just give us a synopsis of that second-best bill by Representative Griffey.
Harris: Griffey’s bill creates an exception to a charge which says anyone who can legally possess a firearm if they remembered our first segment, can carry it. Straight up constitutional carry language. And it also equates someone carrying pursuant to that provision to having an enhanced permit, which is a critical nuance, because we have so many laws on the books right now that say, for example, it’s a crime to carry in a public park unless you have a permit. And so with Griffey’s bill equating permitless carry with having the permit, it would open up parks, greenways, employee safe commute, a park in certain places. It would open up all of that which the governor’s built omits and therefore leaves all of those activities as punishable crimes.
Leahy: And the Griffey bill is probably it’s not going to pass either?
Harris: It came out of the criminal practice.
Leahy: It did come out of a committee?
Harris: It went to House finance, and they put it behind the budget which kills.
Leahy: Okay, so that’s killed. So then let’s go to the shall we say the third best or the worst of the three? The governor’s bill.
Harris: The governor’s bill.
Leahy: Let’s talk about that bill.
Harris: The governor’s bill is the least desirable, although, but as I said, it is a step forward.
Leahy: So you’re going to say good things about the governor for putting it on the agenda?
Harris: He raised the attention and the rhetoric. Although we’re not sure it’s because he really supports the issue upon what he said as a candidate for governor as much as it’s because he’s done so much political damage to himself that he needs some political capital.
Leahy: In other areas.
Harris: Penny Schwinn for example.
Leahy: Okay. I hear you. That’s, by the way, our Commissioner of Education, perhaps the least popular member of the cabinet. But that’s another story.
Harris: That’s another story. But he needs capital.
Leahy: Okay, so he’s got this bill, the worst of the three.
Harris: The worst of the three. Where is it? And why is it the worst of the three?
Leahy: It’s fully passed the Senate?
Leahy: Thank you, Lieutenant Governor McNally.
Harris: He ramrodded it through. The easiest to do with the least desirable.
Leahy: Where’s is it in the House?
Harris: It has come all the way through the House finance, and we expect it to be on the House floor next week.
Leahy: And I guess it’s likely to pass.
Harris: Oh, yeah. It has been given all the royal blessings from the man standing behind the green curtain, (Leahy laughs) and it’s going to apparently sail through without any real critical observation or debate.
Leahy: Okay, so let’s have that discussion. Is there any opportunity for changing the content of the bill now?
Harris: Yes. If you recall, a few years ago with the hall income tax bill, it came through a sort of an undesirable format. It got to the House floor. And about the last day of session at the time, Representative Pody put an amendment on the floor that overwhelmingly changed the bill to a much better bill.
Leahy: And that passed.
Harris: That passed.
Leahy: That passed in that past, and it was accepted by the Senate and signed into law.
Harris: A much better bill, all at the result of one person at the last minute.
Leahy: Do we have any opportunity or any expectation that a similar improvement could happen before this bill becomes law?
Harris: We are talking with House members. We got a lot of support for the idea of offering those amendments on the floor. And the critical part is getting people to call their House members and say we want it amended on the floor.
Leahy: Ah ha! So that’s our point of action. I think there’s a commercial here on our radio station that has that phone number.
Harris: Just general advice.
Leahy: Okay. So tell us what is wrong with the governor’s constitutional carry bill.
Harris: Okay. The first step is constitutionally it ought to be any person who can legally possess. His bill says you got to be 21 and up, or you have to be the age 18 to 20 and either in the military or honorably discharged from the military. Right off the bat, we’ve got an equal protection problem.
Leahy: When you say equal protection, what you’re saying then is, if somebody who’s 18, 19, or 20 years old, it’s not treated in the same way by this bill as somebody who’s over 21?
Harris: Over 21 or even someone in the same age bracket that just happens to be in the military instead of working for a police department. So it’s creating an unconstitutional distinction between adults with respect to a constitutional right. The second problem with the governor’s bill is it is a handgun-only bill as opposed to any firearm. And of the states, there are 18 states that have adopted this kind of law already. Eight of them have any firearm kind of language, which seems to be the trend. I mean, they’re going to say if you can carry a handgun as Virginia does, there’s no big difference.
Leahy: Do you recall any of the other states? Virginia and anybody else?
Harris: There are several that I’ve seen on the news reports would be gathering capitals in different states. Virginia is the one I remember because I was tens of thousands of people standing around.
Leahy: And they haven’t ruined that law yet in Virginia. But they could at any moment.
Harris: And the odd part is, Tennessee passed a law in 2014 called Vehicle Transport, which does allow any legal possessor to carry any firearm in the vehicle loaded or unloaded. It doesn’t matter. So the governor’s stepping away from something that we’ve had for seven years with respect to vehicles. That’s the second big distinction.
Leahy: There are more.
Harris: There are more. The third distinction is it has this really odd clause in it that says you have to be in a place where you’re legally entitled to be. And we didn’t really know what that meant.
Leahy: What I’m trying to figure out is what does that mean, John?
Harris: Well, we got a little bit of a hint from something that was said by the bill’s sponsor, Representative William Lamberth in the House Finance Committee.
Leahy: Representative William Lamberth is the majority leader.
Harris: He is.
Leahy: He’s second in command. And the job of the majority leader is to carry the governor’s agenda.
Leahy: So he’s doing his job.
Harris: He’s doing his job. But he made this odd comment in response to a question he was asked about if this would impact, for example, posted properties? And his response…
Leahy: What’s a posted property?
Harris: Under the current law, a property let’s say a movie theater or a restaurant can put a sign up that says no guns allowed. And if you violate that standard.
Leahy: Or a Toby Keith restaurant. (Laughs) Thank you, Toby.
Harris: If you violate that standard it’s a chargeable misdemeanor and it’s a class B misdemeanor in Tennessee. Something that Representative Lamberth said in the finance was this may result in a second chargeable offense if there is a violation.
Leahy: A little bit of a curveball there.
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