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Tennessee law a gauge for gun rights support

In conservative Murfreesboro, gun rights are sacred, but some say allowing permit holders to carry weapons into city parks is going too far. Tourism is a concern too.

July 09, 2009|Richard Fausset

MURFREESBORO, TENN. — Like many Tennesseans, Mary Beth Sauls supports the right to bear arms. But as she sat by a public pool full of splashing kids recently, the 54-year-old grandmother said she was worried about a new state law that may soon allow gun-permit holders to carry their weapons into city parks like this one.

"I don't think this should really be a place for guns, with all these children around," said Sauls, as she watched a grandson competing in a swim meet.

The Tennessee law, which takes effect Sept. 1, is the latest in a nationwide push by gun-rights advocates to tear down the legal walls that have prevented permit holders from packing their weapons into previously forbidden territory.

In May, Congress voted to allow guns in America's national parks. A number of similar bills were introduced in state legislatures this year to allow guns in parks, bars, college campuses and churches.

In Murfreesboro, a fast-growing city 40 minutes southeast of Nashville, the guns-in-parks law has emerged as a test of how far even a deeply conservative community will go to uphold gun rights. The law allows local governments to opt out and keep their parks gun-free -- a move that the City Council will consider today.

Some residents, like Henry Banks, 58, said they had seen enough "crazy adults" at children's sporting events to support the ban.

"I don't want to go to a park and have somebody who gets hotheaded pull a gun on me," Banks said.

On the other side are 2nd Amendment purists, such as Adam Johnson, a 26-year-old Target employee who keeps a tattered copy of the Constitution in his pocket; the document, he notes, states that the right to bear arms "shall not be infringed."

"It's pretty unambiguous," he said.

In recent years, gun-rights advocates have stepped up efforts to expand the list of places where permit holders may legally roam with a gun.

This year, Idaho, Montana and Utah joined eight other states in passing laws that allow employees to take loaded guns onto employers' property so long as the weapons are left in locked vehicles, according to the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, a leading gun-control advocacy group.

Bills introduced in 12 states this year would have allowed guns on college campuses, though none became law (a 13th bill, in Michigan, is pending). Another failed bill, in Arkansas, sought to let permit-holders carry weapons in churches.

Aside from the guns-in-parks bill, Tennessee recently approved a law allowing permit holders to bring their guns into bars and restaurants -- although the gun owners will not be permitted to drink alcohol. Arizona's Senate approved a similar bill last week.

"We look at it as expanding [rights]," said Andrew Arulanandam, a National Rifle Assn. spokesman. "The simple fact is that you are not immune from criminal attack just because you're in a restaurant, or just because you're in a park."

In Tennessee, however, the new laws have come in for criticism -- and not just from the left.

Last week, Nashville restaurateur Randy Rayburn filed a lawsuit against the state attorney general seeking an injunction that would prevent the guns-in-bars law from taking effect Tuesday.

"I'm a gun owner and a proponent of the 2nd Amendment," Rayburn said. "But the reality that people in the alcohol and service industry know is that there's 1% or 2% [of customers] who are fruitcakes and potentially Dirty Harry wannabes."

The law is also opposed by the Tennessee Hospitality Assn., whose chief executive, Walt Baker, fears it may send the wrong signal about a state that has long sought to attract tourists with its Southern charm -- but is also sensitive to negative regional stereotypes.

"Now Tennessee is going to be looked at as a bunch of gun-toting vigilantes," Baker said.

Proponents of the laws say they will make bars and parks safer, because only "cream of the crop" citizens can pass government background checks to carry concealed weapons. According to the state Department of Safety, more than 231,000 Tennesseans hold handgun permits.

"I think the more law-abiding citizens that are armed, the safer society is," said Micah Forrest, 33, a Murfreesboro nurse's aide who passed the qualifying exam for a permit.

The guns-in-parks debate has taken on a different flavor in Murfreesboro than in the big cities of Nashville and Memphis, where liberal sentiment is more common.

In this handsome old rural hub, which has exploded into a bustling exurb, the debate tends to engage conservative versus conservative. Crime is often spoken of hypothetically: Last year there were five reported homicides in the city of 101,000.

The debate has been complicated by a practical matter: If Murfreesboro observes the guns-in-parks law, the city be could barred from hosting Tennessee's spring high school sports championships, events that generate $3.4 million in tourist dollars annually.

A number of the events are held in Murfreesboro's parks, and the Tennessee Secondary School Athletic Assn. has a zero-tolerance policy on guns at its events.

In an attempt to keep the state championships, Councilman Toby Gilley, who supports concealed permits, said he may propose a compromise: Outlaw guns in the parks only during the competition.

To Forrest, the Constitution is more important than the tourist dollars.

"It always goes back to the green," he said, shaking his head. "I mean, what other rights can we give up to get more money?"

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richard.fausset@latimes.com

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