Despite his persistent criticism of the General Assembly’s latest version of a guns-in-parks bill and a statement to the media on Thursday that he had not yet decided what to do about the bill — taken as a hint by several reporters and observers that he might veto it — Governor Bill Haslam signed the bill into law on Friday.
What that means is that no longer do the state’s localities possess an option to ban individuals with legal permits from carrying weapons onto their parks. The previous guns-in-parks bill had such a provision, and it was invoked by such municipalities as Memphis and Germantown, as well as Knoxville, Haslam’s own home base.
Haslam had made it obvious that he thought legislators should have listened more to misgivings from local communities and law enforcement agencies in crafting a new gun bill, and his own reticence about this year’s bill was probably a factor in the National Rifle Association’s not asking him to address its recent convention in Nashville.
Some of the more cynical observers of the issue, noting speculation here and there that Haslam might end up as a vice presidential running mate for this or that GOP presidential hopeful, most of whom are NRA enthusiasts, predicted that the Governor would allow the bill to become law without his signature. Few imagined that he would sign it into law outright.
But now he has, even though some of his own concerns remain and were expressed in a letter to Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey and House Speaker Beth Harwell accounting for his decision. Acknowledging that the proximity of firearms to minors, particularly school children, could be a major problem, Haslam noted an amendment to the bill that continues to prohibit weapon-carry in the “immediate vicinity” of school-sponsored activity.
The Governor conceded in the letter that “an unintended consequence may be operational challenges for local leaders in managing their parks in a safe, effective, and consistent matter, due to events and situations that could not have been anticipated in drafting this law.”
Among the “operational challenges” that the bill imposes on local jurisdictions is making clear which activities in parks are school-sanctioned and which, though involving school-age children, are not. Critics of the legislation — which, like most gun bills, had a support base corresponding roughly to the Republican membership of the legislature — maintain that the distinction could be a difficult one to make, could invite litigation in specific instances, and, most crucially, would be an ineffective shield against potentially dangerous situations.
Another gun bill that was passed on the last day of this year’s session struck down existing obstacles to firearms possession by persons with a history of mental illness and made it relatively easy for such individuals to acquire gun-carry permits with the approval of a local court.