Attorneys behind Friday’s successful bid to strike down the controversial guns in bars law say they’ll fight any appeal the state mounts to counter Chancellor Claudia Bonnyman’s ruling that the statute was unconstitutionally vague.
“The state has a right to appeal and we’ll certainly file a brief of opposition if they do,” said David Randolph Smith, a lead attorney representing Sunset Grill owner Randy Rayburn and a coalition of restaurant industry and permit holder plaintiffs.
Smith and attorneys David Raybin, Will Cheek, and Alan Woods argued Friday morning the guns-in-bars legislation was unconstitutionally vague because of the obscure state guidelines governing whether an establishment was a bar or a restaurant. Because of the fluid classification, permit carriers do not know if they are breaking the law by entering the establishment, the attorneys argued.
“In a way, the law is protecting the rights of the Second Amendment of handgun permit holders,” Smith said. “The plaintiffs have stated the lack of clarity in the law necessitated a better definition, because the court ruled, it was fraught with vagueness.”
In her ruling, Bonnyman agreed the law was too vague and “does violate the due process rights of the public in general and plaintiff gun permit holders.” The chancellor based her decision on the fact that permit holders cannot determine whether or not they are in violation of the law.
“The principle business being conducted cannot be known to the ordinary citizen,” Bonnyman said. “Inquiry would not be satisfactory or helpful.”
It’s not clear whether or not the Attorney General will appeal the ruling, which effectively eliminated the statute from the law. The legislature is likely to address a new version of the bill in the next session but it is unclear whether or not a guns-in-bar provision will see the same support.
Metro Police Chief Ronal Serpas spoke out in support of Bonnyman’s decision, and said his one concern he had was that the ruling would allow the issue to "again take center stage during the next legislative session instead of the vitally important issue of keeping convicted felons behind bars."
“A couple of things have changed since the decision by the legislature, mainly the MTSU polls where 80 percent of Tennesseans said they were uncomfortable with the idea of guns in bars,” said Rayburn attorney and lobbyist Tom Lee. “Second Amendment rights are important and so are private property rights. This effort, this law, this decision, points out how difficult it is to strike the right balance.”
Serpas also noted the MTSU poll, adding that Tennesseans know alcohol and guns do not mix.
"While I support the Second Amendment and Tennessee’s existing carry permit process, allowing firearms in bars, even with the written stipulation that the gun carrier not drink, is, in my view, a threat to public safety," he said. "We have asked the Metro Legal Department to provide advice on guns in bars enforcement issues in light of today’s court decision.”
Although Second Amendment rights took center stage in the debate over the guns-in-bars law, Lee said the greater issue underlying the controversy was over private property.
“People who own private property should be able to control what happens on their property as much as possible,” Lee said. “Any time the government intends to infringe upon that right, then the legislature and the courts should take a hard look, and that’s what happened today.”