Showdown brews over gun-in-bars

A new bill that would let handgun owners take their weapons into any bar or restaurant in Tennessee has started to make its way through the legislature, setting up another possible showdown over gun rights later this year.

But critics are already taking aim at the measure, which its sponsors filed Monday — less than two days before the hearing took place. Opponents say the bill would effectively open all bars and restaurants to firearms, including places that primarily make their money selling alcohol. “The bill amounts to an enormous expansion of application from last year’s bill,” said Dan Haskell, a lobbyist for the Tennessee Hospitality Association. “We’ve gone from, ‘People need to feel safe when they go to Chili’s,’ to letting people carry in any bar.”

Tennesseans with handgun carry permits have long been able to carry their guns into restaurants that do not serve alcohol, and last year, the legislature passed a law that let them take their weapons into all restaurants that have liquor licenses, provided they do not drink while they are carrying. Restaurants could keep guns out by posting signs stating they were banned, the law said. But restaurateurs immediately filed a court challenge to the law, saying that it did not clearly make a distinction between restaurants that serve alcohol but make most of their money from food and bars, such as Nashville’s honky- tonks, that derive almost all of their revenue from alcohol. A Nashville judge agreed in November, effectively striking down the guns-in-restaurants law.

The new bill — which like last year’s guns-in-restaurants law is sponsored by state Rep. Curry Todd, R-Collierville, and state Sen. Doug Jackson, D-Dickson — will clear up the legal confusion, supporters say.

“It is a broader bill, but . . . that’s what the judge ruled,” Todd said. “I didn’t rule. The judge ruled that they didn’t know where they could carry, so this clears that up.”

The new bill also will clarify the posting requirements for bars and restaurants that want to keep guns out, supporters said.

The measure states that establishments have to post a sign at all of their entrances stating in English that carrying a gun inside is illegal and subject to a $500 fine. Businesses also can post the same message in another language, as well as a circle-and-slash logo indicating firearms are prohibited.

Copies of the sign will be made available for download on the state government’s Web site, Todd said.

“All they have to do is put it in a 99-cent frame,” Todd said.

John Harris, executive director of the Tennessee Firearms Association, said he was pleased with the ruling. Companion legislation has also been introduced in the Senate, and a final bill could come up for vote by the end of the month, he said.

But Nashville restaurant owner Randy Rayburn, one of the plaintiffs in the suit, said his group continues to oppose the legislation.

“Czar Todd has gone beyond what he accomplished in the last session of the legislature,” he said. “It’s a 100 percent capitulation, and this is part of a whole effort of legislative malpractice that was practiced last year. … This is a step too far.”