Tenn. constitutional crisis over Legislative Plaza gun issue?

Photo: WKRN

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) – Some say it’s nothing short of an unexpected constitutional crisis on Tennessee’s Capitol Hill, and it’s causing at least one legislative staffer to officially push back.

The speakers of the state House and Senate say the Tennessee state constitution gives them the right to allow permit holders to carry handguns in what’s called Legislative Plaza.

Governor Bill Haslam says one of his departments makes that decision by statute or law.

Who’s right is a standoff that flared up Thursday with no end in sight.

Photo: WKRN
Photo: WKRN

It remained a sensitive issue Friday as the man whose agency is responsible for Capitol Hill security was stopped by reporters as he walked through Legislative Plaza.

Safety and Homeland Security Commissioner Bill Gibbons carefully chose his words about the wishes of the Speakers to allow the properly permitted handguns in the hallways where he was walking.

“We would have to set up an entirely new screening process but we are not at that point yet,” said the commissioner whose department includes the Capitol Hill troopers from the Tennessee Highway Patrol.

“As the governor pointed out, under current state law, the Department of General Services determines the policy on that and we carry out that policy.”

Lt. Governor Ron Ramsey, who is Speaker of the Senate, thinks that state law is trumped with powers bestowed on him and the House Speaker Beth Harwell by the state constitution.

“It’s up to me and Beth to do it,” Ramsey told reporters on Thursday.

The Lt. Governor’s spokeperson later on Thursday released an additional statement that said, “The two speakers maintain control over legislative facilities. That has been the case for decades and remains the case today.”

House Speaker Beth Harwell later said she and Ramsey were in agreement.

“To be consistent we felt that Legislative Plaza should be open for gun carrying permit holders,” said Rep. Harwell.

While much of the Republican-dominated legislature is supportive of carrying properly permitted weapons in Legislative Plaza, many who work there, from staffers to lobbyists, have privately said they are not in favor of taking away the Plaza’s gun free zone.

Some told News 2 they don’t want to speak up for fear it might hurt their standing, but one exception is 31-year employee Dorris Barnes.

She delivered a letter to Legislative Administration Director Connie Ridley addressed to Speaker Harwell.

In the letter written Friday morning, the legislative staffer writes, “I, personally, have no problem with gun ownership and encourage people to responsibly own a weapon if they choose to do so and treat it with respect. This is not a Second Amendment Right. This is a concern simply made from someone who would be unable to get out of the building quickly, especially since the new ‘security’ system has been implemented and we have to have our ID badge to get out of a door.”

Barnes concludes by saying, “My right to feel safe in a workplace would be in jeopardy, and I for the life of me, can’t see how someone’s right to carry a weapon trumps my right to work in a gun-free zone.”

Her words were not echoed by at some of the visitors to a Legislative Plaza Friday.

Isabelle Carlin was among a group of SMU students who were touring Tennessee’s Capitol Hill while in Nashville for a political conference.

“In Texas we have the concealed handgun license where people can carry,” she told News 2. “If people have adequate training, I don’t feel alarmed or uncomfortable since I have grown up in an environment that’s accustomed to that climate.”

It’s one more side of a debate with constitutional implications flaring up on Tennessee’s Capitol Hill.

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