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Front Page - Friday, February 23, 2018

View from the Hill: Consensus on gun legislation? Not on your life

That burning smell emanating from the General Assembly isn’t coming from the flame of bipartisanship. More likely it’s the result of scorched-earth politics.

Even though a weapons measure called the “carry-like-a-cop” bill died recently in a House committee, the gap between Republicans and Democrats on gun legislation is, for the most part, about as wide as the range of a Barrett .50-caliber rifle, more than 2.5 miles.

Who knows, the “cop-carry” might have passed had it not put the state at risk of losing $436 million in federal funds.

The same day lawmakers in the House Civil Justice Subcommittee were parsing a series of gun bills, parents in Parkland, Florida, were coping with a massacre that claimed 17 people at their children’s high school.

The news hit while the committee was in session. But the next morning, when House Democrats tried to promote “sensible” laws to put an end to the seemingly endless list of school killings, controlling Republicans shut them down, saying it was a time for mourning, not gun legislating.

Democrats responded with defiance, saying nearly every effort they’ve made on gun bills over the last two years has been dismissed.

“It is time that we stop accepting mass shootings as just a condition of American life. Mass shootings are not like hurricanes. You don’t have to accept them,” House Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Stewart says.

“You can take legal steps to prevent them. It is ridiculous that we are once again witnessing the murder of many, many children, and some are suggesting we do absolutely nothing about it. It’s time to take action.”

Rep. Bill Beck, a Nashville Democrat, pointed out the AR-15 used in the Florida mass killing is not a weapon for hunting or home protection.

“It’s a weapon used to hunt people. And ladies and gentlemen, this is the day it needs to stop,” Beck adds.

House Majority Leader Glen Casada, who put Democrats in check on the House floor that morning, contended it was no time for them to push their “partisan issues.”

“My strong urge to them is there’s plenty of time to talk about limiting the rights, limiting our constitutional Second Amendment rights and the effects it has on the safety and security of our families,” Casada says, noting he would talk gun legislation any day the rest of the year, but that morning was off limits.

Casada, a Franklin Republican, says America has a “heart problem,” not a “gun problem,” possibly stemming from lack of respect for authority.

Likewise, House Republican Caucus Chairman Ryan Williams points out the Legislature doesn’t need to rush toward gun legislation in the wake of a mass shooting, much the same as it shouldn’t legislate against vehicles after people are mowed down by cars.

“I can’t imagine what was going through the parents’ minds … they’re texting their kids and trying to find out what was going on,” says Williams, a Cookeville Republican.

“So, the timing was wrong, and I think when you ask about sensible, I think as Republicans and Democrats, we’re always going to disagree on what’s sensible. Their idea of sensibility is different than ours. But we do want to find solutions that are good for Tennessee that still protect the Second Amendment and the First (Amendment) and all of them for that matter.”

Leave it to Casada, though, to take things one step further when he says if Tennessee Democrats have their way, “they’re going to take guns from law-abiding citizens and then only the criminals will have them. And that’s what scares us.”

That’s not exactly what they said, of course, and the last car killing of note took place at the Charlottesville, Virginia, racist nut-job march last summer. But either way, both sides appear to be taking partisan shots at each other and trying to push their agenda. It’s an argument that could go forever, forever, forever (as the kid said in the move “Sandlot”).

Then again, this is the Legislature, and that’s what they do.

Bipartisanship in action?

Despite the chasm in the raucous House, a couple of bipartisan gun-related bills are gathering support.

One would require the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation to notify the Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse within one day when a mentally defective person tries to buy a gun.

(Why this requires a state law is about like asking why the FBI would need to be forced to investigate all credible threats such as those reported about the Florida shooter. But we’ve got to have folks such as congressmen and state legislators acting with wisdom for the rest of us. Otherwise, most media types would be out of a job.)

Another would eliminate the sales tax on gun safes, an outside shot at encouraging irresponsible gun owners to lock up their weapons, putting them out of reach of children and thieves. Never mind a measure called MaKayla’s Law, which would make it a reckless offense to leave a loaded gun lying around so a kid can blow out their friend’s brains.

It is going nowhere, along with several other Democratic-backed bills designed to clamp down on gun carrying for domestic abusers and the like.

Asked if a bipartisan “fire” is sweeping through the Legislature in light of these bills, Lt. Gov. Randy McNally points out “fire” is probably the wrong term.

Nevertheless, Republican Sen. Ferrell Haile is sponsoring the bill putting a check on insane people, calling it a “common-sense, non-political” piece of legislation. Democratic Rep. Karen Camper of Memphis is carrying the House version.

“I think it’s a real timely bill,” says Haile, of Gallatin, noting he “just drew up” when he heard a news report about the Florida high school shooting containing audio of the gunshots.

Still hurting

Amanda Rosenberger, a member of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, recalls the day 25 years ago when a gunman/classmate shattered the serenity of her college experience by opening fire at Bard College, killing one of her friends and a professor and injuring five more.

The killer had gone into a sporting goods store, shown a driver’s license and walked out with an SKS semi-automatic rifle. The toll could have been worse if his gun hadn’t jammed and if other students had been armed. (This goes against the argument that arming more people on campus would have eliminated the threat, another of those efforts Republicans are pushing.)

“One beautiful, snowy, winter evening, a week before final exams, my sense of refuge, my sense of security was violently and irretrievably shattered,” recalls Rosenberger, one of about 100 women wearing red T-shirts and lobbying against a batch of Republican-backed gun bills that day at Cordell Hull Building.

She heard the gunshots that killed her friend and tried to help another friend who was covered in blood because he tried to save her professor. A quarter-century later she can’t talk about the incident without turning emotional. Rosenberger finished her education, earned a doctorate and teaches at a college campus.

“I’ve held on to my love of learning, but I’m far from wholly healed,” she acknowledges, explaining she continues to “feel a pain” when she walks on campus, especially if snow is in the air.

Since that terrible day, America has experienced the horror of Columbine, Aurora, Virginia Tech, Sandy Hook, Orlando, Las Vegas and now Parkland, Florida – just to name a few.

“Each horrific headline again brings the stab of trauma and loss, and I’m heartsick and I’m tired. But I’m also determined to do what I can. We need to show courage to protect our communities from gun violence,” Rosenberger says.

The analysis

With the nation wondering where the next school shooting will erupt, the question is whether House Republican leadership will hold up its end of the bargain and agree to serious debate on these gun bills. Casada says he is ready to talk the rest of the session about weapons-related measures, including the Haile-Camper bill on notification of law enforcement when insane people try to buy guns.

Don’t get excited, though, about people from different parties working together, unless the bill stems from a Republican sponsor with the GOP holding supermajorities in the House and Senate.

Memphis Democratic state Sen. Lee Harris, who is pushing the gun-safe tax break bill with Sen. Kerry Roberts, a Springfield Republican, says the Legislature might have made some progress on bipartisanship. But he notes, “It’s really been incremental.”

Sometimes Democrats and Republicans can find “a nice intersection,” for instance, on the gun-safe bill because it will enable a tax cut and potentially keep guns out of the hands of children. Harris points out Memphis has more accidental shootings involving children than any city in Tennessee, which has more than any state in the nation.

But when House leaders can’t even agree on when to talk about “sensible” gun legislation, Tennesseans have to wonder if they can take any effective action or will continue to do things such as encourage people to carry guns on boats and in parks and bars. Constitutional carry can only be a few years away. One also wonders whether anything can be done to deal with thousands of stolen guns circulating around the country.

So, if you’re a Democrat looking for “sensible” gun laws, your best bet is to have a cold beer for your parched throat amid this scorched earth.

Sam Stockard is a Nashville-based reporter covering the Legislature for the Nashville Ledger, Memphis Daily News, Knoxville Ledger and Hamilton County Herald. He can be reached at sstockard44@gmail.com.