Lawmakers get new shot to close gun permit records

By Juanita Cousins The Associated Press

NASHVILLE Tennessee lawmakers are ready again to try to muzzle state records that list who has a permit to carry a concealed handgun, and this time they are considering making it a crime to publish information about gun ownership.

The measure sponsored by Rep. Eddie Bass, a Democrat from Prospect, would make information on gun permit holders confidential and exempt from the state's open records law. The bill is scheduled for a hearing Wednesday by the House Criminal Practice Subcommittee.

For 12 years, similar legislation has failed to make it to a floor vote, but this year's version has a new twist and a better chance of passage now that Democrats who previously blocked the bill, including former Speaker Jimmy Naifeh, no longer control the House.

The new bill would make unauthorized publication of the information a misdemeanor that could be punished with a maximum fine of $2,500.

Bass said letting the public see the gun permit database is an invasion of privacy and empowers criminals, making permit holders easy targets for burglaries and endangering women protecting themselves from their abusers.

The fine is necessary to deter publication of the information, Bass said.

Critics point to unconstitutional prior restraint

Open records advocates are concerned that closing the records will stifle efforts to monitor whether the government is issuing the permits properly and contend the fine would amount to an unconstitutional prior restraint on publishing information about gun ownership.

"This bill will make it a criminal offense for the press to do its job," said Frank Gibson, executive director of the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government. The Associated Press and other news organizations are members of TCOG, a nonprofit advocacy group.

Over the past few years, news outlets in the state have used the database for stories that reported ineligible people were getting permits issued and renewed because courts were not reporting protective orders to the state and that criminal background checks were not being performed because Tennessee lost access to the federal criminal database for over a year.

"Without the press reporting it, this would have gone unnoticed," Gibson said. "There are 6 million Tennesseans and those citizens have a right to know whether the government is protecting them by not issuing a gun permit to people who should not have them."

Bass said it is the responsibility of the Safety Department, and not the news media, to monitor who receives gun permits.

A Department of Safety report shows 627 permits were "revoked or suspended" in 2008 for felony convictions and alleged domestic violence.

Tennessee is one of 19 states that allow the public to access gun permit information, according to the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. At least 21 states keep the information confidential.

Applications note that information is public record

Gun permit applications state that the information submitted will become public record, said Department of Safety spokesman Mike Browning. The department releases the name, date of birth, address, permit issue date and permit expiration date of all permit holders for $80.50.

The state has received 11 requests for the entire gun permit database since June 2008 from news media, a lawmaker and the general public, Browning said.

The Commercial Appeal in Memphis uploaded a version of the database to its Web site in December, but it did not draw attention until an early February story about a parking spot argument that ended with a motorist shot dead. A reader posted an online comment asking whether the man charged in the shooting had a permit to carry a gun. The newspaper responded with a post directing readers to its database, which deleted addresses and some other information the state releases.

Despite extensive complaints and threats, Editor Chris Peck said the paper has no plans to remove the database from its Web site.

At least one woman expressed appreciation for the list, saying she was able to identify that her stalker, who also had a felony conviction, owned a gun.

The Tennessean newspaper in Nashville posted a similar database to its Web site but hastily removed it after reader outrage.

National Rifle Association Executive Director Chris Cox said it is irresponsible to make data about concealed weapon holders public.

"The essence of right-to-carry is that in a world where wolves cannot distinguish between lions and lambs, the whole flock is safer," Cox said.

Lawmakers push three gun-carry bills forward

Subcommittee moves to seal records, expand places firearms allowed

By Tom Humphrey

NASHVILLE - Handgun carry permit holders would avoid public scrutiny and they could take their weapons into more places under legislation approved Wednesday by a House subcommittee that has blocked similar bills in the past.

The House Criminal Practice Subcommittee approved three of four bills recommended earlier by a special study committee.

They are:

-- HB959 by Rep. Eddie Bass, D-Pulaski, which would seal records of permit holders now open to public inspection. As amended, anyone disclosing information about permit holders would face a $2,500 fine.

-- HB962 by Rep. Curry Todd, R-Collierville, which would allow permit holders to take their weapons into restaurants that sell alcoholic beverages, so long as the permit holder does not consume alcohol himself or herself. Guns will still be forbidden in such establishments after 11 p.m.

-- HB961 by Rep. Mike Bell, R-Riceville, which allows guns to be taken into wildlife management areas and national forests.

A fourth bill recommended by the study committee, HB960 by Rep. Harry Tindell, D-Knoxville, would have allowed guns in state parks, city and county parks, and national parks.

Tindell agreed to an amendment urged by Rep. Janis Sontany, D-Nashville, that would continue the current ban on guns in city and county parks. A vote on Tindell's bill was then postponed for a week, with some legislators suggesting another change to give local governments authority to decide whether to allow guns in parks they operate.

The panel proceeded, however, to pass a similar bill, HB716 by Rep. Frank Niceley, R-Strawberry Plains, that was already drafted to allow guns in state parks but not in local parks.

House Speaker Kent Williams was among those calling for guns to remain prohibited in local parks, saying, "I've seen too many fits of anger at local parks" during sports events and the like and, "We don't need to escalate the problems."

All the gun bills were approved on voice votes with the only apparent no votes on the six-member committee coming from Sontany and Rep. Karen Camper, D-Memphis.

Rep. Joe McCord, R-Maryville, served as the chairman of the study committee and said the four bills have "the most consensus" for passage among a host of bills filed to deal with handgun permit restrictions.

McCord had originally sponsored several handgun bills but turned them over to Tindell, Bell and others. He was among sponsors listed by the Chattanooga Times Free Press on Wednesday as a handgun permit holder but said that had nothing to do with his decision to let others take a lead in pushing the bills.

Frank Gibson, who heads the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government, questioned whether such a situation could pose a conflict of interest.

McCord said he sees no conflict in holding a permit while pushing bills dealing with permits - no more than holding a driver's license and taking positions on bills dealing with traffic offenses.

Other legislators holding carry permits while sponsoring legislation on the topics, the newspaper said: Sen. Tim Burchett, R-Knoxville, and Sen. Doug Jackson, D-Dickson.