Legislature votes to ‘hammer’ local governments imposing gun bans

The House and Senate gave final approval Tuesday to legislation that makes it easier – perhaps even profitable – for gun-rights groups and their lawyers to challenge in court firearm bans on locally owned government property including parks, public buses and auditoriums.

There was some fairly heated debate on both the House and Senate floors, but with strong National Rifle Association support HB508 passed by comfortable margins in both chambers: Initially 70-24 in the House, then 26-5 Tuesday in the Senate, which added an amendment changing some of the wording. The House quickly signed off on the Senate amendment later Tuesday, 71-14, sending it to Gov. Bill Haslam (who was rather non-committal when asked about it recently).

Under the bill, city and county governments – state government is exempted – can lose their current legal protections against lawsuits when the court dispute involves restrictions on carrying weapons in a park, zoo, auditorium, bus system and the like. They are stripped of immunity unless they buy metal detectors, hire security staff, check bags and take other security precautions.

And, if sued successfully, the local government must pay triple the plaintiff’s lawyer fees – a provision that appears nowhere else in state law, according to critics of the measure. Elsewhere in state law, notably including consumer protection statutes, a plaintiff can win treble damages, or three times the economic loss caused by the loser plus attorney fees.

But the treble attorney fees is a state law novelty, said critics including Rep. Bill Dunn, R-Knoxville, and Senate Democratic Caucus Chairman Jeff Yarbro of Nashville.

Sponsor Sen. John Stevens, R-Huntingdon, said the threat of triple lawyer fees will provide a “hammer” to prod local governments into taking security measures when they impose “gun free zones” restricting Second Amendment rights.

“What I’m asking the local government to do is actually protect us when we’re not able to protect ourselves,” said Stevens, contending the only protection given citizens now in “gun free zones” is a sign saying weapons are not allowed. Law-abiding citizens might respect the signs, he said, but criminals will not and citizens with handgun carry permits should be able to protect themselves.

There are some public buildings not covered by the bill, including mental health facilities, school property, property used for school activities, buildings where there are judicial proceedings and law enforcement building.

Stevens and the House sponsor, Rep. William Lamberth, R-Cottontown, both cited the City of Knoxville’s ban on guns at a city-owned park as the leading example of a local government wrongly restricting gunowner rights.

UPDATE/Note: The NRA’s Institute for Legislative Action lists the bill at the top of its report on pro-gun success in the Tennessee legislature’s 2017 session, HERE.

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