- Associated Press - Thursday, April 9, 2015

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) - It was supposed to be a welcoming gift from Tennessee lawmakers to the National Rifle Association and the more than 70,000 gun enthusiasts expected to attend the group’s annual convention in Nashville this weekend.

But a bill to allow people with handgun carry permits to be armed in all of the state’s parks - including greenways, playgrounds and sports fields - has gotten tied up amid bickering between Republicans who control both the state House and Senate.

A law enacted in 2009 to allow guns in Tennessee parks included an opt-out provision for city and county governments, and more than 70 communities initially decided to keep their gun bans in place.

Opponents argued the law creates confusion for permit holders about where they can legally be armed, and a bill was introduced seeking to end the exemption. The original version included an unusual twist: An effective date of April 6, which happened to be the Monday before the NRA’s annual convention.

House Speaker Beth Harwell, R-Nashville, acknowledged that the measure had been timed to welcome the powerful gun lobby’s convention.

“The sponsor of the bill, when drafting it wanted to have a date in which this could be acknowledged at the National Rifle Association’s annual meeting here in Nashville,” she said.

But the measure turned out to be far from a slam dunk, as Democrats vocally criticized the measure as potentially endangering children playing Little League or climbing on jungle gyms.

Freshman Sen. Jeff Yarbro persuaded colleagues to attach a change to the bill before a floor vote that would add the state Capitol complex to the areas where handgun carry permit holders could be armed. The Nashville Democrat said his amendment was aimed at highlighting what he called the “hypocrisy” of loosening gun restrictions near children, while keeping security in place around lawmakers.

That change proved a bridge too far for the House, which voted to strip that amendment from the bill.

That meant the bill had to travel back to the Senate, which won’t be able to take further action to iron out differences between the two chambers until Monday - the day after the NRA convention leaves town.

Yarbro said he was pleased with forcing more debate over the measure and that it didn’t reach its original goal of going into effect before the NRA meeting.

“Timing legislation to coincide with a convention coming to town is a bad way to make public policy,” he said.

Another skeptic is Republican Gov. Bill Haslam, who also has raised concerns about the timing of the bill and taking away local control over who can be armed in parks. Haslam has a checkered history with the NRA: He only joined the group after he first become a candidate for governor in 2009, and he was once a member in Mayors Against Illegal Guns, a group co-founded by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

Haslam, who as Knoxville mayor presided over a 2009 city council vote that kept in place a handgun ban in some of the city’s parks, won’t have to explain the Legislature’s inaction to the NRA. He wasn’t invited to speak at the convention.

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