B.Y.O.G.: Tenn. Law to Allow Guns in Bars

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Nikki Goeser’s biggest regret is that she didn’t have a gun on her the night her husband was killed. It was April 2nd of last year, and Nikki was out with her husband Ben at Jonny’s Sports Bar in Nashville when a man approached them and pulled out his firearm. “I saw the tip of the gun and my memory is kind of blurred from there, but that’s when I heard the gunshot,” she described later. In that moment, she felt “helpless,” not just to see her husband at the wrong end of a gun, but also because she was unable to fight back.

Goeser owned a gun at the time and had a permit to carry it in public, but under Tennessee law at the time, she was not allowed to bring her gun into the bar. “I had to leave my gun locked in my car in the parking lot that night,” she wrote in a column in her local newspaper. “If I could have been allowed to carry my gun that night, perhaps I could have saved my wonderful husband. I can tell you that the odds would have been more in our favor.”

She soon became the face of a movement to allow guns in bars. Yet, Goeser’s own story can be seen as both an argument in favor of and against expanding gun legislation. The argument is simple enough to understand: having access to a gun may have allowed Goeser to protect herself and her husband, but it could also have led to an even more dangerous firefight in a public space.

Nevertheless, Tennessee legislators eventually passed a law allowing guns in places that sell alcohol. The law took effect in the summer of last year, only to be overturned by a state judge that November who called the law “unconstitutionally vague.” Now, less than a year later, Tennessee is on the verge of passing revised legislation, and in the process, has fired up another round of debates.

Earlier this week, legislators in Tennessee’s state senate moved forward with a proposal that would allow each city to determine whether or not to allow firearms in bars. According to the Nashville Business Journal, the new law “would allow handgun permit holders to take their weapons inside places that serve alcohol unless businesses posts signs prohibiting it.” In this way, customers would always know before walking in a restaurant or bar whether it was legal for them to bring their gun.

Given the controversy surrounding Starbucks’ announcement last month that it would allow people to bear arms in its stores, it may sound odd that legislators would work so hard to allow guns in bars. After all, Starbucks just serves caffeine and overpriced pastries; this law allows citizens to mix a potentially lethal cocktail of firearms and alcohol. Yet in the time since Tennessee passed the original bill last year, several other states have taken similar steps to amend their own gun laws.

Arizona now allows people to bring guns in bars as long as that person refrains from drinking. Like the proposed bill in Tennessee, Arizona gives business owners the option to put up special laminated signs advertising that guns are not allowed on the property. (Hundreds of businesses requested these signs in the first month alone.)

Meanwhile, Virginia is on the verge of enacting their own law, but it has pit pro-gun legislators against state police chiefs who have asked the Governor to veto the legislation if it comes to him. “"We can fully expect that at some point in the future a disagreement that today would likely end up in a verbal confrontation, or a bar fight, will inevitably end with gunfire if you sign this legislation into law,” the state association of chiefs wrote in a letter.

Even some gun owners remain unsure about bringing weapons into bars. “As a gun owner… I prefer bars & restaurants with the no gun sign just because I prefer (if given an honest choice) not to be around armed civilians. No facts, just a personal preference,” one reader wrote on Knoxnews.com about the proposed legislation in Tennessee.

This point cuts to the heart of what many small businesses in Tennessee and elsewhere are worried about. Putting aside the obvious safety concerns, several owners have expressed fears that allowing weapons in bars and restaurants could drive away customers and tourists who may feel uncomfortable.

“Restaurant owners, represented by the Tennessee Hospitality Association, have serious problems with the legislation,” the Memphis Commercial Appeal reported. “They have no way to police a provision of the bill that prohibits armed patrons from consuming alcohol. What are they supposed to do? Frisk everyone who orders a drink?” The Commercial Appeal also notes that these establishments worry about ostracizing gun owners by putting up signs saying the weapons are not allowed.

Would you feel uncomfortable spending the night in a bar or restaurant next to someone carrying a gun or do you feel the issue is overblown?

(Check out our list of states with the most guns, based on total annual gun sales in each state.)

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