Hi, I’m Beth Joslin Roth and I’m the Policy Director for The Safe Tennessee Project. We’re a newly formed, nonprofit organization focused on addressing the gun violence epidemic in our state through outreach, awareness, and advocacy.
First, I’d like to thank Senator Harris and Representative Clemmons for convening this round table and for taking on this issue. And, thank you to their staffs for bringing us all together.
Tennessee has a problem with gun violence.
A few statistics for you:
Tennessee is 9th in the nation for death by firearm.
We are 12th in the nation for suicide by firearm.
We are 10th in the nation for domestic violence shootings.
And, we’re 9th in the nation for accidental shootings.
The CDC recently released a report of the “most distinctive” causes of death. Alabama and Tennessee had the unfortunate distinction of being the two states where “accidental discharge of firearms” was the most distinctive cause of death.
Not quite two weeks ago, Senator Harris asked me to participate in a conference call to discuss the Attorney General’s recently issued opinion. At that time, I shared that so far in 2015, there had been 20 accidental shootings in Tennessee since January.
Today, I can report that the number is now 25. Several additional accidental shootings late in July had not yet shown up in my newsfeed and there have been a couple since then, 3 involving adults and 2 involving kids.
One of the incidents involving a child was a 15 year old boy, the son of a Robertson County deputy. The boy was accidentally shot and killed last week. Ironically, the boy’s father is the School resource officer at the boy’s high school.
One of the incidents involved a 38 year old man who shot himself at work. He was handling his gun and accidentally discharged it, shooting himself in the chest. Police report that he has a valid handgun permit.
Legislators who pushed for this law said that it was needed so that people could defend themselves in parks, implying that our parks were full of violent crime. In the TBI report that came out about a week after the law was passed, the number of murders in Tennessee parks was zero.
In pushing for this law, the bill sponsors emphasized that it only pertains to permit holders and that permit holders undergo training and can be trusted with firearms. But, we know that even permit holders have accidents and sometimes commit crimes.
Of course, finding out how many permit holders are involved in shootings is very difficult. Not necessarily because they don’t happen, but because in 2013 in response to the Sandy Hook shooting, the NRA helped pass laws in Tennessee and 5 other states to keep carry permit holders’ information confidential, greatly impacting journalists’ and researchers’ ability to report on whether someone committing a crime with a gun had a permit.
Although we may not know the exact number of accidental shootings or crimes committed by permit holders, the Tennessee Department of Safety and Homeland Security has data that does tell us how many permits are denied, suspended, and revoked. In 2014, there were 1,659 permit requests denied, 1,257 suspended, and 284 revoked.
To obtain a permit, Tennesseans must present verification of US citizenship or lawful permanent residency, pay a fee, and undergo an 8 hour class. Part of the class is spent on basic gun safety and part is spent on a firing range. The state requires a 70% score on the range and the written test. There is no requirement for follow up training or re-certification of any kind.
Compare that to the training for police officers. According to Captain Keith Stephens of the Nashville PD, officer go through 120 hours of firearm training and that the topics covered include:
Pistol issuance – safety and home safety.
Shotgun issuance – safety and home safety
Gun retention and disarming
Room clearing / entry
Active killer response
Shoot and don’t shoot scenarios
Escalate and de-escalate scenarios AND
80 hours on the gun range
Law enforcement officers are specifically and methodically trained for handling alterations and active shooter situations. Permit holders are not.
Additionally, in all the discussion about this bill, there was never any mention of any requirements for checking permits.
Actually, that’s not true- the ONLY mention of checking for permits was when the House rejected Senator Yarbro’s amendment to allow permit holders carry firearms in the Capitol complex. The House voted to non-concur- one of the primary reasons given was the cost associated with screening and verifying permits.
No such concern for the rest of us, apparently. Nothing in the bill – now the law – provides any specifics or parameters for verifying that someone with a gun in a park has a valid permit, even in parks that are adjacent to and used by schools such as the two public schools both my kids attend.
If the Attorney General is suggesting that permit holders can bring guns to events such as concerts and festivals held in parks, will the permit holders be required to declare their guns and show their permit? And what about vendors who sell alcohol at these events? Will they be left to assume everyone purchasing alcohol isn’t carrying a gun?
And yes, of course I know that permit holders are not allowed to consume alcohol when they are carrying, but the very legislator who pushed for the guns in bars bill was himself arrested for DUI with a loaded handgun in his car not long after the bill was passed. This legislator is also a former police officer.
But, we are to trust that everyone carrying a gun is, in fact, a permit holder, and will, they promise, be responsible while they’re carrying. It seems like we are expected to rely quite a bit on the honor system when it comes to this law, doesn’t it?
And, speaking of the honor system, let’s look at how you can acquire a firearm in our state. Legally, you can go to an Federal Licensed Firearm dealer, undergo a background check, and if you pass, complete your purchase.
Legally, you can also purchase a gun from a private party. Buying a gun in this way does not require a background check. As part of the Gun Control Act of 1968, individuals are allowed an “occasional trade” of weapons, an ambiguous definition that allows people to buy and sell firearms without any record of the transaction.
These kinds of purchases might- and do- occur in the parking lots of gun shows. They can also occur through online exchanges such as armslist.com. If that name sound familiar, it’s because it’s been in the news lately as it has been reported that the man in Chattanooga who shot and killed 5 US service members acquired some of his rifles via the exchange. Armslist is like a Craigslist for guns. To gain access to the site and to be able to connect with potential sellers and buyers, you simply click a button indicating that you agree that you are 18, are not a felon, and won’t sell to any felons. Other than that click, you’re on the honor system to comply. A recent look at armslist showed that there were 630 semi-automatic rifles for sale in Tennessee and that 600 were by private party. That’s 95% semi-automatic rifles for sale in our state with no requirement for a background check.
Last night, there were 1,223 pistols for sale on Armslist, 1,132 by private party- so 93% of the pistols for sale would not require a background check.
So, we don’t know if there will be any system in place to verify that someone carrying a gun in a Tennessee park is an actual valid permit holder.
We do know that last year, over 1500 permits were revoked or suspended and over 1600 were denied.
We do know that we make it shockingly easy for potentially dangerous people to easily acquire firearms in our state.
And we do know that accidental shootings are a serious problem in our state.
With this knowledge, I find the idea of people with guns in the parks next to my kids’ schools terrifying. And, the idea of people with guns in crowded outdoor concerts and festivals where alcohol is served is very definition of an accident looking for a place to happen.