Gun-bill sponsor challenges Department of Safety authority to oppose legislation

By: - February 22, 2023 6:00 am
Rep. Chris Todd, R-Jackson, questioned a state employee's right to address concerns about a bill to allow 18-year-olds to carry firearms. (Screen grab from Tennessee General Assembly House Civil Justice Committee.)

Rep. Chris Todd, R-Jackson, questioned a state employee’s right to address concerns about a bill to allow 18-year-olds to carry firearms. (Screen grab from Tennessee General Assembly House Civil Justice Committee.)

The House Civil Justice Subcommittee voted Tuesday to lower the age for carrying guns to 18 but not before a tense exchange between the bill’s sponsor and Department of Safety representatives who balked at the bill.

Rep. Chris Todd, a Madison County Republican who sponsored the legislation, challenged THP Col. Matt Perry and Department of Safety and Homeland Security legislative liaison Elizabeth Stroecker as they opposed his bill, even though Stroecker said the department dropped its opposition to lowering the carry age to 18.

Asked by Todd where they had the constitutional authority to lobby against the legislation, Stroecker responded that they had “permission” from the Governor’s Office. The response apparently irritated Todd, who said, “I would assert you have no statutory or constitutional authority to come in here and oppose this legislation.”

Stroecker, who admitted she didn’t know every law on the books, responded that she had nothing else to say but later added that she and Perry were doing their jobs.

Todd, though, continued to stoke the fire and argued that people have a “civil right” to keep and bear arms, saying he was appalled they came into the committee representing the governor and opposed the legislation. Todd, who refused to answer questions afterward, claimed he was told the Lee administration would not go against his bill.

Jackson Republican Rep. Chris Todd, sponsor of a bill to drop the legal age for gun carry to 18, questioned a spokesman for the Tennessee Department of Safety and Homeland Security and a Tennessee Highway Patrol colonel about their authority to raise concerns about the bill.

Subcommittee Chairman Lowell Russell and House Majority Leader William Lamberth quickly came to the defense of Stroecker and Perry, saying they were “doing their job.” Lamberth noted that if committee members had a “specific issue with the message,” they could take it up with the governor and safety commissioner.

The Governor’s Office didn’t answer email questions immediately Tuesday afternoon.

Todd’s legislation gets rid of any “infringement” against carrying weapons and allows open carry for anyone 18 and above, except felons, multiple-DUI offenders, stalkers and people with mental problems. It also shifts state laws to say “firearm” instead of “handgun” to enable people to carry any type of weapon openly. In addition, the measure would change immunity laws for businesses that post signs prohibiting weapons on the property. 

Elizabeth Stroecker, Tennessee Department of Safety and Homeland Security. (Screen grab: Tennessee House Civil Justice Committee)
Elizabeth Stroecker, Tennessee Department of Safety and Homeland Security. (Screen grab: Tennessee House Civil Justice Committee)

Initially, Stroecker said the department opposed the bill because it would rewrite the state’s permitless carry law and drop prohibitions against people such as stalking offenders. She was corrected later and admitted that the bill wouldn’t drop that section the Legislature passed two years ago as part of the governor’s permitless carry bill. 

The legislation, nevertheless, could run counter to federal prohibitions for carrying a weapon.

However, Stroecker said the department opposes changing the word “handgun” to “firearm” in state law because of the confusion it could create for enhanced permit holders. Stroecker also said the legislation would take away an employer’s ability to prevent an employee from carrying a weapon in a company vehicle.

Most pointedly, she noted, “Simply changing the code from ‘handgun’ to ‘firearm’ is a safety concern” for the department and the main reason it opposes the bill.

Still, Stroecker said the Department of Safety is “comfortable” with dropping the carry age to 18 because of a lawsuit against Tennessee challenging the 21-year-old minimum age for carrying handguns. 

Tennessee Attorney General Jonathan Skrmetti recently signed a proposed order in a case brought by a California group agreeing the minimum age should be 18. U.S. District Judge Katherine Crytzer last week put a 30-day hold on the proposal.

“If it were just that piece, changing it down to 18 for the enhanced, the concealed and the constitutional carry, that’s something the department would be OK with,” she said, but noted the department opposes other changes.

Perry added, however, “The idea of someone being able to carry any kind of rifle or high-capacity rifles is a concern for law enforcement, just our interactions with people, how do we address them (as) they walk into this building. We’re charged with protecting. We can’t prevent them from coming in.”

Opposing takes: Rep. Rusty Grills, R-Newbern, raised questions about the Tennessee Highway Patrol’s opposition to high-capacity rifles while Nashville Democratic Rep. Bill Beck pointed out the legislation will allow a person to carry an AK47 outside the Cordell Hull Legislative Building.

Because of the state’s permitless carry law, officers can’t ask people why they have weapons in their possession unless they have “reasonable suspicion” they’re ready to commit a crime, Perry said.

The colonel explained he wasn’t talking about “honest, hardworking, good people,” but the “criminal element.”

Rep. Rusty Grills, R-Newbern, raised questions about the types of people troopers would be checking and he challenged THP’s opposition to high-capacity rifles. He contended that handguns also could have the same types of high-capacity magazines.

But state Rep. Bill Beck, D-Nashville, confirmed that under Todd’s legislation, a person could walk up and down Broadway in Nashville and in front of the Cordell Hull Building carrying an AK47.

Regardless, the Republican-controlled subcommittee passed the measure on a voice vote.

Ultimately, Rep. Antonio Parkinson, D-Memphis, invited subcommittee members to “hang out” with him on the Fourth of July or New Year’s Eve and listen to shots fired.

“Automatic weapons are pandemic in my community,” Parkinson said.


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Sam Stockard
Sam Stockard

Sam Stockard is a veteran Tennessee reporter and editor, having written for the Daily News Journal in Murfreesboro, where he served as lead editor when the paper won an award for being the state's best Sunday newspaper two years in a row. He has led the Capitol Hill bureau for The Daily Memphian. His awards include Best Single Editorial from the Tennessee Press Association.