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Council’s move to curb gun violence sets up encounter with state government

by James Coleman, Special to The New Tri-State Defender

Memphis City Council members sent a shot across the bow of the gun-friendly Tennessee General Assembly Tuesday (July 11) with the unanimous passage of referendum questions that seek to tighten firearm regulations within the city.

Memphis City Councilman Jeff Warren

“I think this is an enabling legislation that allows our citizens to vote on sensible regulation of deadly weapons,” said sponsor Councilmember Jeff Warren.

On Aug. 24, 2024, Memphians will vote yes or no on whether to ban assault weapons within the city. They will have a say on whether to require permits for guns that are currently allowed to be openly carried. The state legislature did away with permit requirements for most handguns two years ago.

The referendum will also ask whether guns in vehicles should be stored in a lockbox to prevent thefts.

Memphis also be asked if the City Charter will allow extreme risk protection orders, sometimes called red flag laws.

The move is expected to provoke a lawsuit from the state.

Tennessee law currently allows permitless open carry for some firearms, including in vehicles.

Local governments, however, are prohibited from enacting gun regulations. As a result, council members will likely gauge its effectiveness by the impact it has on the General Assembly.

“I think it’s an opportunity for the General Assembly, whether they choose to listen or not, to understand where we are as a municipality to give the voice to the people and I’m fully supportive of it,” said council member Chase Carlisle.

Carlisle continued, “I’m pretty sure we know how the voters are going to respond…We’ll roll the dice. If the General Assembly wants to punish us and punish our citizens for asking for their help, then we’ll deal with that accordingly. That would be absolutely heartbreaking.”

The upcoming questions highlight the chasm between some urban needs and those of rural voters.

Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee has requested state lawmakers to return to Nashville for a special session, scheduled for Aug. 21, to discuss possible gun-reform legislation.

While large cities such as Memphis and Nashville see a generous share of gun violence – Memphis is considered one of the most violent cities in the nation – the responsibilities of rural gun owners often go beyond self-protection.

Typically, firearms are also regarded as tools to protect their land from predators or nuisance animals. There are also strong hunting interests in the state.

Although the referendum could meet its doom in court, the hope is the legislature will meet the city halfway and provide carve-outs for urban population centers.

Recently, state Sen. Brent Taylor (R-Memphis) said the option could be a “tall-order,” but “worth exploring” on WKNO-TV’s “Behind the Headlines.”

Nevertheless, the chances of success are slim. Rural legislators, typically Republican, dominate the legislature.

“I want to be very clear about … what we are doing here in terms of outcome. When we, ourselves, will not be regulating or changing state law but we will put the question to the people of how they want to be governed,” cautioned council member Worth Morgan.

Morgan also warned against potential confusion if the law passes, since state law preempts local ordinances. However, he offered that a balance had been struck while crafting the referendum.

“There are some things that will never have a chance of passing and there are others on both sides, whether it be left or right, conservative, or liberal.

“These are very reasonable and worth debating. This will be something that adds to that debate, because now we will be able to say with confidence what the people feel about it,” said Morgan.

In addition to the ongoing plague of gun violence and gang activity, the effort to curb loosened gun laws in Memphis was given further impetus after recent high-profile gun-related crimes or incidents.

Warren originally pitched gun controls after a May 2 meeting was interrupted by news of a man shooting at AR-15 at the lobby of the FOX News studio at Highland Ave.

The shooter then headed south to Ubee’s restaurant, where he barricaded himself for 30 minutes before surrendering. He also live-streamed the incident. No one was injured.

Guns thefts in Memphis are also common during car break-ins and thefts. Many stolen firearms are later used in crimes, police said.

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