A Beer and a Shot?

Tennessee's "guns in bars" bill stirs controversy


"We already live in the Wild West," says restaurant-nightclub owner Todd Adams, concerning proposed legislation that would allow handgun owners with carry permits to pack heat in places where beer and liquor is served by the drink.

Adams, who runs Newby's, a watering hole on the Highland Strip, is a life-long sportsman and outspoken firearms enthusiast, so he's sympathetic to gun owners who have to lock their guns in their cars before coming in to wet their whistle. "People leave their handgun in their car and then the car is broken into. I know of this happening more than a handful of times, and it's scary thinking the petty criminal now has a handgun," he says. But after considering the pros and cons, Adams -- who's been known to e-mail news reports to his friends whenever gun rights seem threatened -- thinks mixing guns with booze is a bad idea.

Even in a gun-happy state like Tennessee, there doesn't seem to be a large popular movement behind House Bill 0233, the legislation proposed by Representative Curry Todd (R-Collierville) that would permit carry permit holders "who aren't consuming alcohol" to hang out in bars. The measure seems to be particularly unpopular among bar owners and law-enforcement types, who will face the consequences of guns in taverns.

I am always concerned when guns and alcohol are mixed," says Shelby County Sheriff Mark Luttrell. "Reasonable people do foolish things when they have had too much to drink."

The idea that people would take their guns into bars and not drink was mocked by state senator Beverly Marrero (D-Memphis) in 2008, when similar legislation was proposed by fellow Democratic senator Doug Jackson of Dickson. "As I understand it, bars exist to facilitate drinking," Marerro said.

P&H Cafe owner Bob Heaton echoed her sentiments: "Right now, the law says that nobody but me and a uniformed, on-duty police officer can carry a gun into my bar,” Heaton said. "That's how I like it," Heaton concluded. "If you say it's okay for people to carry guns into bars, more people are going to carry guns into bars."

"[This new bill] is only the tip of the iceberg," says state representative Jeanne Richardson (D-Memphis), an opponent of this and the prior similar measure. "Look on our web page and see how many gun bills we have," she says. There are three pages of gun-related bills listed on the state legislature's website.

Among the hundred-plus bills up for consideration is HB 0798, a measure that authorizes full-time faculty and staff at public colleges and universities in Tennessee to carry handguns, proposed by Representative Stacy Campfield (R-Knoxville), a vocal supporter of Todd's guns in bars proposal. Campfield also worries that under current conditions legal gun owners are defenseless in parking lots, where, he says, "most crime occurs."

"Some people see legal gun ownership the way other people see free speech," Campfield concludes. "Limits should be few and given strict scrutiny because of the guarantees given us by our founding fathers."

Luttrell doesn't entirely disagree with Campfield's assessment. "Our law should try to more clearly distinguish between an establishment that primarily serves liquor and one that primarily is for dining," he says, citing a circumstance that might make the proposal more palatable to its critics. "[And we should] limit the presence of firearms in the liquor serving facility."

Memphis Police Director Larry Godwin is somewhat less broadminded. "I am not a proponent of guns in bars," Godwin said. "Drinking affects your decision making. I don't think you can ever safely mix guns and alcohol. Our legislative body seems to spend more time talking about letting guns into bars than putting crooks behind bars."

In order to keep guns out of places that are primarily bars, HB 0233 has language prohibiting guns in bars after 11 p.m. and bans guns from establishments that only admit patrons over the age of 18. Both provisions are problematic. In many cases, age restrictions are tied to smoking bans rather than liquor sales. Non-smoking bars that are also music venues, like Midtown's Hi-Tone Cafe, offer all ages shows where non-drinking teens and drinking adults co-mingle.

The Commercial Appeal may have exposed the real special-interest group behind this kind of legislation in a recent series of articles about gun ownership and gun crime in Tennessee. According to the CA, 26 percent of the state's legislators hold handgun carry permits, as opposed to only 5 percent of Tennessee's total population over age 21. Interestingly, Todd was not listed among the pistol-packing legislators named by the CA.

Many bartenders and restaurant owners are cautious about expressing their negative feelings about the guns-in-bars law publicly, for fear of backlash. Proponents of de-fanging regulatory gun laws are well organized and well-funded.

Memphis Restaurant Association president Mike Miller says he was swiftly criticized by a fellow association member for having sent out an e-mail to MRA members alerting them to the bill's imminent passage, and suggesting that those who oppose the legislation should contact Governor Phil Bredesen to voice their opposition.

The conventional wisdom repeated on website after website by those who support legalizing guns in bars holds that similar legislation passed in other states hasn't caused them to devolve into the wild west. Often, it's noted that only self-regulation prevents someone from carrying their gun into a bar now, if they choose to ignore the fact that it is a criminal act to carry a firearm in an establishment serving alcohol.

"But the long and the short of it," says Adams, "is that it's hard enough dealing with an intoxicated person. I would hate to have a confrontation with a drunk carrying a gun." Adams, whose long food-service career includes stints at Ronnie Grisanti's and the now defunct Captain Bilbo's, adds, "It's like in the [Western] movies: You need to check your gun with the local sheriff before hitting the saloon." n

-- Chris Davis

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