For the past 146 years, the National Rifle Association has touted itself as the defender of the 2nd Amendment in America. Their efforts in education, mentoring and lobbying have produced good results nationwide. Their celebrity supporters have given credence to the mission to advance firearms ownership and to peel back laws that restrict the ability of law-abiding citizens to “keep and bear arms”.
For their efforts and successes, we commend them.
But we are curious about their efforts in the area of pushing states to adopt “permitless” legislation, also known as Constitutional Carry (CC). Constitutional Carry, also known in the past as “Vermont Carry” after the state that has allowed its citizens to keep and bear arms without a State “permit” since 1796, is a policy that essentially claims the 2nd Amendment to the U.S. Constitution is a law-abiding citizen’s “permit”.
This significant statement incorporated into our Constitution recognizes the God-given right of citizens to defend themselves against potential citizen threats but, most specifically, against a tyrannical government. In the past three decades, many states have acted on their own to reclaim this right for their citizens through the adoption of laws that allowed law-abiding citizens to arm themselves in public and carry handguns “concealed”. However, these laws demand a training class and payment to their state in order to exercise a right they already possess. Such is the case in Tennessee.
In Tennessee, the Tennessee Firearms Association (TFA), established in 1995, has been at the “tip of the spear” in writing, promoting, educating and lobbying for laws that return this right to Tennesseans. In the last two decades, TFA has sought to move Tennessee into the “Vermont Carry” category, only to be blocked again and again by recalcitrant Democrat majorities and, lately, uncooperative Republican Supermajority Subcommittees and Committees.
But what role has the NRA, the nation’s oldest 2nd Amendment advocacy group, played in assisting liberty-loving Tennesseans in reclaiming this right granted by our Founding Documents?
We must stipulate that the NRA has been very active across the nation in pushing states to pass legislation allowing law-abiding citizens to obtain permits to carry concealed handguns. Such legislation has resulted in a massive drop in violent crime in those areas. (Note that major metropolitan areas like Chicago, Detroit, St. Louis and Memphis continue to maintain tight restrictions on gun ownership and are extremely dangerous to live in.)
The NRA is also on the record as supporting a national reciprocity bill to allow concealed carry in all fifty states. Such would force states like New York, Massachusetts, Maryland, and Connecticut to abide by federal constitutional mandates rather than unconstitutionally restrict their citizens’ ability to keep and bear arms. We applaud them for these efforts.
But what about the NRA’s support of Constitutional Carry? Here’s what we found.
In a recent push to oppose a bad gun bill in Utah, the NRA declared “Make no mistake, the NRA strongly supports permitless/constitutional carry.”
Just recently, they crowed about their success with the CC effort in New Hampshire. Likewise, in South Dakota. In fact, they doubled down there to encourage South Dakota lawmakers to override a veto of CC legislation. In neighboring North Dakota, the NRA “backed” CC. Mere miles to our north, they joined CC advocates in Kentucky to restore gun rights there. To our south, they are working with the Alabama Legislature to move their CC bill. To our east, the NRA “loves” the idea of South Carolina passing CC. Their spokesperson recently called CC “common-sense legislation” in Wisconsin. They supported the overriding of a West Virginia CC veto this past year. Same again in Missouri, on the record supporting and promoting CC. In nearby Mississippi, they claim the CC legislation was “NRA-backed”. In Alaska, the NRA lobbied hard for lawmakers to pass the CC bill. In Kansas, they promoted CC to state lawmakers.
Need we go on?
What did we find when we did a search for “Constitutional Carry, NRA, Tennessee”? We found this March 4, 2016 article from the NRA-ILA Newsletter informing its Tennessee Members to call the members of the Senate Judiciary Committee and “ask them politely” to support SB1483 being carried by Senator Mark Green and to call the members of the House Civil Justice Subcommittee and “ask them politely” to support HB1748 being carried by Rep. Judd Matheny. Unlike the other links above, we could find not one assertion by the NRA that it supports CC in Tennessee and expects the elected officials it endorses and gives money to to support it.
What we did see in 2017 was the NRA Lobbyist pushing for “window-dressing” gun bills that would allow incumbents to go home and brag about their fealty to the 2nd Amendment.
During the 2014 primary season, the TFA begged the NRA to support Steve Gawrys in the TN-61 primary against the incumbent Charles Sargent because of Sargent’s recent history of killing off gun bills in his House Finance Committee. The best TFA could muster was getting Sargent’s “rating” lowered to a C-. Gawrys lost by less than 260 votes after the NRA sent out its obligatory card endorsing Sargent for re-election.
During the 2016 primary season, TFA activists approached the NRA State Lobbyist, Erin Luper, about withdrawing support from several incumbents and throwing their support behind their primary opponents, all solid supporters of Constitutional Carry. High on this list was Rep. Jon Lundberg, then a candidate for outgoing Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey’s Senate Seat, who had blocked just about every gun bill in his role as a member of the House Civil Justice Subcommittee. Lundberg had even gone so far as to vote “Nay” on a gun bill and then ask to have his vote recorded as “Present, Not Voting” allowing the bill to fail, but attempting to hide his subcommittee vote from the folks back home.
Luper kindly refused, offering that the NRA had to stick with “people who could win” whom the NRA would need to move gun legislation in coming sessions. Pray tell, what gun legislation was the NRA hoping to “move”?
This was a vast departure from their 2012 position. In the 2012 TN-45 Republican House Primary, they went “all in” against then-Republican House Caucus Chairman Debra Maggart, who had publicly humiliated then-Lobbyist Darren LaSorte. LaSorte was working to advance gun bills through the Tennessee House, but Maggart was blocking his efforts with the GOP Caucus because “we don’t want our people to have to vote on gun bills during an election year”.
The NRA rightly came out “yuuuuuuge” (Do you remember those billboards?) for an unknown Air Force veteran and Sumner County Tea Party President Courtney Rogers in that primary, delivering a crushing 16-point defeat to Maggart. I was a part of that campaign and there was no polling in April suggesting Rogers had a chance. This “all in” effort or an effort of any magnitude has yet to be repeated in any Tennessee legislative race while Constitutional Carry, Open Carry, and Elimination of Gun Free Zones legislative efforts have languished without NRA support.
Some CC advocates in Arizona have asserted that the NRA actually moved to block their CC legislation, which was later passed and signed by Governor Jan Brewer, afterward claiming their positive role in its passage. This same article detailed problems in Tennessee with lack of NRA support for Constitutional Carry.
While the Yankees in Maine, Vermont and New Hampshire get NRA support for Constitutional Carry, while our neighbors in South Carolina, Kentucky, Mississippi and Missouri have the NRA in their State Capitols pushing lawmakers to pass Constitutional Carry, while the NRA works overtime in South Dakota, North Dakota, Montana and Wyoming, and while Wisconsin lawmakers move toward full CC adoption, the NRA in Tennessee endorses and and gives money to lawmakers who openly oppose these same bills. What’s more disturbing is their absence in the Capitol actively working Members to pass CC.
So, what are we to make of this? Does the NRA hate Tennessee?
We think not. But what we do think is that their ignoring Tennessee has become a personal issue, not a policy issue. In researching for this piece, we found numerous States where changes in gun legislation and active efforts to bring Constitutional Carry into being were begun by local grassroots groups rather than the NRA behemoth. The NRA finally did get involved after the ball was in play and has been critical in passage of these bills.
In Tennessee, the TFA Executive Director, John Harris, has been outspoken in his desire to see Tennessee join the fourteen other CC states and has worked tirelessly to educate lawmakers and assist them in writing constitutionally-based gun legislation. He has traveled the state without compensation for two decades meeting with local gun groups and small TFA chapters encouraging them to become active in supporting candidates who will support CC legislation, whether incumbent or challenger. He has detailed the entrenched impediments in the Tennessee House and Senate to CC legislation.
Many have challenged his methods. None can challenge his facts.
Also caught up in TFA’s frustration is the obvious lack of NRA interest in moving CC in Tennessee. This has also not escaped Harris’ attention. He has privately called on the NRA to step up to the plate and fulfill the mission they are pursuing in other states right here in Tennessee. When the status quo remained in place, he has publicly called for the NRA to “get in the game”.
Perhaps they don’t like being called out. Perhaps they have a plan. Perhaps they might share that plan with their Members who contribute hundreds of thousands of dollars annually to the NRA. Just like the Tennessee taxpayers who are being shaken down for more gas tax money for projects in other counties, Tennessee NRA members would like to see some return for their investment right here in the Volunteer State.
I know John Harris. He couldn’t care less who gets the credit for passing Constitutional Carry in Tennessee. He just wants to see it done.
Does the NRA? We shall see.
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Jeff Hartline is the executive director of Tennessee Spotlight and development director for the Tennessee Firearms Association