The Case to Veto HB508

Each year, the legislature continues to pass legislation that loosen our already lax gun laws. And we often ending up in court defending them. Many of these laws are opposed by law enforcement, city councils and mayors whose concerns about public safety are ignored.  And, as we pass these laws, the number of people being shot in our state continues to go up.

In 2012, we passed the “guns in trunks” law and since then, gun thefts have gone up dramatically.  For example, in Memphis, there were 473 guns stolen out of cars in 2014. There were 851 guns stolen out of cars in 2016.  Last year, Memphis saw the highest number of homicides in 23 years.  The number of guns stolen out of cars also went up in Nashville over that time frame.  Last year saw a record number of homicides in Nashville as well.

The consequences of these laws we pass are concerning to law enforcement.

Memphis Police Director Rallins recently addressed this with city council members during a public safety committee meeting:

“I have several recommendations.  And most of them are with the state legislature.  The legislature needs to strengthen gun laws.  We’ve seen guns in parks, guns in cars.  I’m going to ask our citizens again to get involved in some state issues that the police director does not control because legislation has consequences.  These are gun issues.  Legislation for guns on buses is now being considered.  I support the second amendment. However, there are limitations to anything.  So, guns in cars have unintended, negative consequences. More guns stolen from cars, more guns used in crime stolen from cars.”

The fiscal note for this bill is a $200,000 one-time cost and a $1 million dollar per year cost.  But just last week, the executive director of the Tennessee Public Transportation Association noted that the costs are likely to be far higher since the bill would apply to public transportation.  The Association estimated that the bill’s security requirements would cost the four large urban public transit systems $3.8 million in one-time costs and $36 million in yearly costs. They also noted that there could be delays and scheduling issues as a result.

These are permissive costs, for course.  The bill doesn’t require these city-owned spaces to purchase metal detection equipment and hire security personnel. But, if a city doesn’t want to – or can’t afford to – spend millions of dollars to implement the prescribed security measures, they could be sued by “outside membership organizations” for triple damages

Charles Swanson, the law director for the city of Knoxville, has described the bill as: “an attorney’s relief act for those representing gun interests.”

When a similar law allowing “outside membership organizations” to challenge local gun ordinances was passed in Pennsylvania in 2015, the NRA filed lawsuits against three separate cities in the state within days of the law going to into effect.  The attorney for the NRA warned the municipalities: “Now it’s about to get expensive.”

So, if a city can’t afford to pay millions of taxpayer dollars to comply with this legislation, they risk having a wealthy out-of-state lobbying group sue the city for triple damages.

The house sponsor Rep. Lamberth wasn’t concerned about the lawsuits, noting that “cities like Nashville and Knoxville have attorneys on staff and millions of dollars to defend themselves should lawsuits be filed.  But these “millions of dollars” are the taxpayers’.  Is this the best use of taxpayers’ money?  And what about cities that do not have millions of dollars?

During the discussion on the House floor, Rep. Dunn noted his concern with the triple damages provision of this bill, calling it a “giveaway to the special interests, one that local governments and their taxpayers will have to foot.”  He also said that the legislature has passed so man gun laws in recent years that it’s not clear any more where guns are allowed and where they’re not.

So, if a city doesn’t purchase metal detectors and hire security, and doesn’t want to risk being sued,  they are left with only one other option – to allow guns in all of these spaces, including public transportation.  Have the bill sponsors consulted with law enforcement?  Is this something they want?  Guns in all of these public places?  Guns in bus terminals, guns on public buses, including those that transport hundreds of middle and high school students on them during the school year?  Guns at crowded festivals where people are drinking? 

Although the bill indicates that only permit holders would be allowed to carry in these places, how will this be monitored?  If a person is carrying a loaded gun on a bus, how are people or law enforcement to know if the person is a law-anding permit holder or a criminal?  And, even if they are permit holders, they’re not immune to making a mistake.  Over the last couple of years in Tennessee, there have been several instances where lawful permit holders accidentally discharged their weapon in public – a couple at their place of employment, on in a restaurant parking lot, on at a Walmart, and just a few weeks ago on Easter Sunday, a man accidentally fired his gun at a Lebanon church.

To obtain a gun permit in Tennessee, all that’s required is a background check, a 4-hour class and around 4 hours on a firing range.  Of course, some permit holders may be highly skilled and have impeccable aim.  But some permit holders may not have those skills.  You don’t have to hit the bullseye to be issued a permit.  So, assuming that the only people who would be carrying guns in these places are permit holders, there is no guarantee that they are highly skilled. 

In fact, even law enforcement with all of their initial and ongoing training, and their required time on the range, do not always hit their targets.  According to a study of the New York City Police Department by the Rand Center of Quality Policing, the department’s overall accuracy, or hit ratio, was 34%.  During a gunfight, it was 18%.  The hit ratio for the Los Angeles police department was 31%.

The shooting at the Music City Central MTA transfer station is brought up as a reason for this bill.  The shooting between a group of teenagers occurred at the one of busiest times of day as many Metro middle and high school students who use bus passes to get to and from schools that are outside their zoned schools. Police were on the scene immediately as were first responders.  Imagine the scene – terrified adults and children running, screaming, trying to get out of the building.  The only way the situation could have possibly been worse is if a half dozen people pulled their guns in an attempt to intervene.  And then when law enforcement arrived on the scene, what would they find? Multiple people holding guns? How are the police to know who the shooter is?

Not long after guns in parks was passed, there was a roundtable discussion held at the Capitol to discuss the implications of the new law.  One of the participants, Franklin County Sheriff Tim Fuller, brought up crossfire:

“We got a bad guy in the middle of the room with a weapon, we have all of us around the table and we start shooting, how many people are going to be injured or killed?”

These are concerns brought up by law enforcement, the men and women in uniform who are tasked with keeping our communities safe.

The second amendment is an important part of our constitution and is cited as a reason for this bill.   However, in the landmark Heller decision of 2008 that held that the Second Amendment confers an individual right to possess firearms unrelated to service in a well-regulated state militia, Justice Scalia, writing for the majority, also makes clear that the right is not unlimited, and should not be understood as “a right to keep and carry any weapon whatsoever in any manner whatsoever and for whatever purpose.”  The Court provides examples of gun laws that it deems “presumptively lawful” under the Second Amendment, including those which:

    • Prohibit the possession of firearms by felons and the mentally ill;
    • Impose conditions on the commercial sale of firearms;
    • Forbid firearm possession in sensitive places such as schools and government buildings.

Before we pass another law that’s opposed by law enforcement and local authorities, before we pass another law that will lead to expensive lawsuits, and before we pass a law that could cost the taxpayers of the state tens of millions of dollars, maybe we should look into what we can do to actually reduce gun violence in the state. What can we do to actually make our cities safer.  Maybe we need to spend some time talking with law enforcement and local authorities to ask them what measures they think we should take to address this issue. So far, loosening our gun laws is not reducing the number of people being shot in our state but it has led to expensive lawsuits that line the pockets of attorneys with taxpayer dollars.