NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP/WMC) - Republican gubernatorial candidate Bill Haslam ignited controversy this week when he told a gun rights group he would sign legislation into law to eliminate Tennessee's requirements for carrying handguns in public.
Haslam, in a discussion with members of the Tennessee Firearms Association on Monday night, noted that the state's permitting process was used as justification for expanding areas where guns can be carried, such as into state parks or bars and restaurants that serve alcohol.
"I support the right to carry in those situations," he said. "If a bar owner says he doesn't want that, he can make that decision, but everything should be up to the individual owner."
Haslam, in a statement released by the campaign late Tuesday, sought to clarify his comments.
"What I have said previously is I support the current permitting law as it's written," he said in a statement. "When asked if I would sign legislation passed by the General Assembly that would change the current concealed carry permit system, I acknowledged that if the legislature decided that that was the best course, I would sign it."
There are about 300,000 handgun carry permit holders in Tennessee. To qualify, they must pass a handgun safety course and pay a $115 fee. Permits are revoked for felony convictions and can be suspended for pending criminal charges or for court orders of protection.
Mike McWherter, the Democratic nominee to succeed term-limited Gov. Phil Bredesen, said Haslam's position is irresponsible.
"When it comes to gun legislation you have to use some common sense and think about the public's safety," McWherter said. "I just think Bill Haslam has gone completely off the cliff."
McWherter said he cannot believe Haslam is willing to put the safety of Tennessee families in jeopardy.
"I just don't believe removing the requirements for having a concealed weapon is a good idea for Tennessee. Now that means people involved in gangs or criminal activity can literally carry a concealed weapon wherever they want to go."
The Legislature twice moved to override vetoes by Bredesen, a Democrat, of the law to allow permit holders to be armed where alcohol is served. It only takes simple majorities in both chambers to override a governor's veto.
One of the questions to Haslam was raised by a man who identified himself as Leonard Embody, whose permit was revoked by the state Safety Department for carrying a pistol fashioned to look like an AK-47 at Radnor Lake State Park in Nashville.
Embody has been stopped at least four other times in similar incidents. In January, police in the Nashville suburb of Belle Meade detained him while he was walking down the street with a .44-caliber black powder revolver in his hand.
The National Rifle Association earlier this month declined to endorse either Haslam or McWherter. The country's largest gun rights organization gave Haslam a grade of B- and McWherter a C-, but did not explain how it arrived at its ratings.
Haslam has been heavily criticized by his gubernatorial rivals for being weak on gun rights, including for his failure to join the NRA until after he entered the governor's race last year and for his past membership in Mayors Against Illegal Guns, a group co-founded by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
McWherter, a Jackson beer distributor and son of former Gov. Ned McWherter, questioned why Haslam got a better score than he received when he and his son have both long been NRA members.
McWherter lost points with some advocates for his call to adjust a state law allowing people with handgun carry permits to be armed in bars and restaurants that serve alcohol. McWherter wants to restore a ban on guns in late-night bars.
Action News 5 reached out to local representatives Lois Deberry, G.A. Hardaway, and Curry Todd for reaction to Haslam's comments.
"I remain committed to protecting and expanding the Second Amendment right of law-abiding citizens. I am looking forward to working with the new Administration to continue that record," Todd said in a written statement.
"Any effort to eliminate the gun carry permits would be irresponsible and put the public safety at risk," said Hardaway. "I doubt seriously if the legislature would entertain such a thought of eliminating permits. Common sense would reign and such an effort would fail. I think everyone recognizes the danger both to the public and to law enforcement."