Mimesis Law
9 December 2019

Tennessee Tries Gun Reform Laws, Fails Miserably

July 7, 2016 (Fault Lines) — If you’re a concealed carry permit holder injured in a shooting, and that location was a gun-free zone, should you get to sue the owner of the establishment for civil damages?  Tennessee seems to think this a great approach to “sensible” gun reform laws, enacting SB 1736 on July 1 into law. The new subsection to the “gun free zone” laws brings property owners who actually comply with the “gun-free zone” statute greater civil liability. If you follow the law you’re opening yourself up to suits from concealed carry permit holders injured in a “defensible man-made or natural hazard.”

This new statute is a case study in how “sensible gun reform laws” pass from sensible to nonsensical, and tread heavily toward absurd.

“It is the intent of this section to balance the right of a handgun carry permit holder to carry a firearm in order to exercise the right of self-defense and the ability of a property owner or entity in charge of the property to exercise control over governmental or private property,” the bill states.

The bill, and its House twin, require those wishing their business denoted as “gun free zones” go through the mandatory steps of posting signs clearly designating that property as “gun free” in order to properly comply, and then open the property owner up to more liability for choosing to take a stand in the gun control debate.  The new law requires each “gun free zone” owner to implicitly say to patrons, “I am not required by law to forbid the presence of firearms on my property, and if you’re a concealed carry permit owner visiting my business, harmed by a bear attack or otherwise, I’m ready to foot the bills, both medically and legally.”

Knowing that sort of stance places you at odds with the law, why would any property owner choose to subject themselves to further liability by designating their Subway franchise as a “gun free zone”?  The answer is no one would in their right mind would do that, and that’s because of the “immunity clause” inserted right before the bill hit Governor Haslam’s desk.

(a) A person, business, or other entity that owns, controls, or manages property and has the authority to prohibit weapons on that property by posting, pursuant to § 39- 17-1359, shall be immune from civil liability with respect to any claim based on such person’s, business’s, or other entity’s failure to adopt a policy that prohibits weapons on the property by posting pursuant to § 39-17-1359.

(b) Immunity under this subsection (a) does not apply to a person, business, or other entity whose conduct or failure to act is the result of gross negligence or willful or wanton misconduct. (Emphasis added.)

Those bolded statements give businesses an “out” from civil liability in the Volunteer State the next time an Omar Mateen or any other individual decides to carry out their twisted fantasies of killing large numbers of people.  A bar might be “known” as a gun free zone, because “common sense”* says you just shouldn’t carry a gun into a place that serves alcohol.  The local dance club might be a “gun-free zone” because fights break out from time to time, and bouncers don’t need to deal with unruly patrons carrying a firearm without their express knowledge.  As long as the establishment shrugs and says, “We didn’t know about this,” and manages to convince a jury it’s reasonable enough for a concealed carry owner to not bring their firearm into their business, then a civil suit only wastes the Plaintiff’s time and money.

The new “gun free zone” statute gives no teeth to “gun reform.”  It doesn’t give any “wins” to stricter gun control advocates or pro gun, NRA-loving lobbyists. It’s actually a punt that says “We realize there’s times when people might get sued for not having their handgun, so we’ll take a pass, draft impotent legislation, and pat ourselves on the backs for what we managed to accomplish.”  Worse still, the language actually invites people to turn their heads at current “gun-free zone” requirements and simply take a pass on following the law!

By adding in the requirement for “gross negligence” or “willful and wanton misconduct” standards to grant a business civil immunity, an injured plaintiff would essentially have to show a lone gunman injured in a shooting at an establishment, like The Edge,** that the owners knew about this law, chose to ignore the postings of “gun free zone” signs at all entrances and exits. Or that they simply didn’t care enough about their presence, in a reasonable business owner’s standard, to decide posting “gun free zone” signs and complying with the law is worth their time.  By adhering to the law, it’s causing those who would take a stand against guns in their business simply ignore current law for fear of civil lawsuits.

The new “gun free zone” law as of July 1, 2016, stands as an example why no “common sense” gun reform laws will actually pass a test of “sensibility.”  When you attempt to balance the interests of one group against the interests of another, the best approach you’re left with is nothing more than ineffective laws attempting to please all parties.  Those who keep telling us there’s an “easy way” to fix the United States’ “gun problem” are well advised to look at Tennessee and tell us where the correct “solution” lies.  Right now, the State’s not seeing any.

*As noted in the link, our Managing Editor manages to throw me into fits whenever I hear “common sense” now.

**The Edge is a nightclub similar to Orlando’s The Pulse.

3 Comments on this post.

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  • Kyle
    7 July 2016 at 10:19 am - Reply

    I’m confused. The new law says that if you make your business a gun-free zone, you are liable for the defense of people who you disarmed. Then the added part that you quoted says that if you DON’T make your business a gun-free zone, you can’t be held liable for not making it gun-free.

    Your punt says “We realize there’s times when people might get sued for not having their handgun” but this says nothing about suing someone who has a weapon.

    What does this law have to do with Omar Mateen, except to make more places not be gun-free zones?

  • DaveL
    7 July 2016 at 11:47 am - Reply

    What’s this about property owners “complying with the law?” Nothing compels business owners to post signs. The law merely gives property owners the option of making their policies legally enforceable with criminal penalties by putting up such signs. If they choose to take such measures to disarm the law-abiding, and fail to provide adequate security the ward off those bent on doing harm despite the law, I see no reason why they should not be liable.

  • Jason K.
    7 July 2016 at 2:11 pm - Reply

    Yeah, I’m not following it either. The argument seems to be predicated on already accepting the ‘guns are bad, mmmkay’ assumption. It seems quite reasonable to me that if you are going to legally enforce additional vulnerability on someone, that you ought to be accepting liability for that. If I can order you not to wear shoes under penalty of law, I better make sure the floor is clear of broken glass. You can argue freedom of association, in that people who don’t want to bear the additional risk shouldn’t go into those places, but at a certain level of implementation, freedom to associate effectively ceases.