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Senator Set to Reload in Guns-and-Booze Battle

by Mark Todd Engler on December 4, 2009

The chief Senate advocate for allowing legally permitted handgun carriers to possess their firearms in certain eating establishments where alcohol is served said he’s close to unveiling “a general improvement on the law” for the coming session.

While the language is still in draft phase, the changes that Sen. Doug Jackson says he and fellow co-sponsors plan to propose for the guns-in-restaurants law will clarify some key issues of contention and address the constitutional worries a Nashville judge outlined in a ruling last month.

“If somebody is concerned about vagueness, that is going to be addressed,” Jackson, a Democrat from Dickson, said Friday morning.

In a Nov. 20 bench ruling, Davidson County Chancellor Claudia Bonnyman took aim at the Tennessee Legislature’s recent firearms-law adjustment, saying it was “fraught with ambiguity.”

Before the 2009 General Assembly made it legally permissible for a non-drinking gun-permit holder to carry in certain businesses where both food and alcohol was sold,  state law unequivocally banned pistol packing anywhere beer and cocktails were served.

Bonnyman said she had specific problems with a new provision that states, “the serving of…meals shall be the principal business conducted” in order that handguns might be allowed on the property.

“The new exception of the prohibition against firearms where alcohol is served creates ambiguity where none existed before, and is vague on its face in that it fails to satisfy the constitutional standards of fair warning and fair enforcement,” said the judge.

Furthermore, she added, police officers “are no better suited to make the difficult judgment call as to whether the serving of meals constitutes the principle business of an establishment, such that the presence of a handgun on the premises would be legal or illegal.”

Beyond clearing up the uncertainties Bonnyman outlined, Jackson said the bill-language he plans to introduce will also clarify what sort of signage a restaurant-owner should post to avoid any legal confusion as to whether guns are permitted in the place of business.

Every establishment-owner has the “preeminent right” to ban guns if he or she chooses, and violators are subject to $500 fines, said Jackson.

“We’re going to address that issue head on,” said Jackson. “We want the property owners to know what is an effective posting. And by the same token, we also don’t want the permit holders to be guessing what is, or is not, an effective posting.”

In his view, Jackson said drawing distinctions between primarily eating establishments versus 21-and-over bars and taverns is mostly just an effort “to create standards of behavior for people who legally carry guns.”

“What we’re doing is regulating law abiding citizens,” he said. “As to whether those regulations are necessary, there is a debate, but I would suggest that if you look around the country at all the states and all the body of law, what you are going to find is that law-abiding citizens simply are not the problem.”

He predicted the Legislature “will act quickly and decisively” in 2010 to pass revisions to the guns-in-restaurants law.

“I suspect there will be a lot of support, just like there was last year,” Jackson said. “We’ll address the judge’s ruling, and then we’ll move on to bigger issues.”

Opponents of the law – which was approved over the veto of Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen – promise another tough fight ahead and say a recent Middle Tennessee State University poll showing 60 percent of state residents opposes allowing guns in restaurants, and 80 percent oppose guns in bars, indicates the general public does not support the new law.

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