by Gila Hayes
In June, I enjoyed a video chat with John Harris of Tennessee, one of our earliest affiliated attorneys and a generous contributor to our monthly attorney question column. He’s up to his neck in the fight for gun rights in TN, an effort I think you’ll enjoy hearing about in Harris’ own words via video linked below or this briefer, written format.
eJournal: Let’s introduce you to members who haven’t had the pleasure of meeting you. Aren’t you the latest of three generations of TN attorneys? What’s the focus of Harris Law Office?
Harris: That’s correct. My grandfather was licensed in 1940. I’m the third generation and my youngest brother is an attorney and a judicial magistrate.
I have been practicing for 38 years. My practice involves representing explosives companies, gun manufacturers and dealers in disputes with the ATF. When you represent small businesses, you end up doing wills, estates, probate, even a few divorces. Business owners have car wrecks and get injured, so we have a good amount of experience with injury cases including medical malpractice death cases. I also do contract reviews and lease negotiations. It’s a broad spectrum of practice.
eJournal: You’re also the driving force behind Tennessee Firearms Association (TFA). How did that come about?
Harris: In 1994, TN created a permitting system whereby individuals who wanted to carry a firearm no longer had to get law enforcement commissions. They could go apply for a handgun permit, but there were a tremendous number of statues that made it a crime to carry in places like public parks, greenways, or going into a quick market to pay for gas that you pumped.
We had an entire spectrum of laws that created gun free zones. We needed an advocacy group to work on the details after, having passed the permitting system, the national groups left the state. We formed TFA as a 501(c)(4) nonprofit in 1995. In 1996, we formed our first political action committee (PAC) and just last month we formed our first 501(c)(3) to promote more direct educational opportunities and public interest litigation.
eJournal: What are your landmark accomplishments?
Harris: Early on, it took up to a year for the state to issue permits because of the flawed way in which a “model law” brought in by a national group had been enacted. We wrote and passed a law that regardless of the status of the background check, the state has to either approve or deny a permit application within 90 days. We now have that down to a matter of weeks because we continue to press on that issue.
We have passed lifetime permits in Tennessee. We now have, I think, 38 states that will honor the TN permit and TN honors permits from any state regardless of reciprocity. We have been successful in eliminating a number of gun free zones. We passed civil immunity two years ago and now we’re pushing for criminal immunity, so we’ve got a long list of things that we’ve accomplished in the last 28 years.
eJournal: Now, you’re fighting to keep red flag confiscations out of TN. What happened?
Harris: In March of this year, we had a mass shooting in a school in Nashville. One of the victims was a close friend of the wife of our governor. Within two weeks, Gov. Lee announced that it was time for TN to adopt a red flag law and he’s forcing our general assembly back into special session. He called it a “temporary mental health order of protection,” but it is just a red flag law. He’s trying to enact a law so firearms can be seized from individuals who have committed no crime, but assuming they’re potentially a dangerous individual or have a severe mental health issue, his proposal leaves that person at large in the community where they would have access to other weapons for either suicide or homicide. All it does is take guns on the naive assumption that it somehow eliminates the threat.
eJournal: Could the special session be prevented?
Harris: Under the TN constitution, the governor has the unilateral and absolute right to issue a proclamation to call the general assembly into a special session, but he has no authority over what they do, so long as it is within the scope of his proclamation. They could say we’re not going to do anything, adjourn and go home, but since our general assembly is a Republican super-majority and we have a Republican governor, as a courtesy they might decide to take up and maybe try to pass something, but there’s no constitutional requirement for it.
eJournal: You’ve blogged that TN’s red flag proposal is a “We’ve got to do something!” reaction or a politician trying to grab the spotlight. How do we combat political rabble rousing after a tragedy?
Harris: In TN and in other states, you stop that by developing state advocacy groups and strong political action committees far in advance of the emergency. The state groups, with support from national groups, have to have the infrastructure ready to fight when the fight is brought to their steps, just like Lexington and Concord where militia members were trained and prepared to respond to threats to their community, whether it was an Indian attack or the redcoats.
In TN, we have a governor who can’t run for governor again and hasn’t indicated he wants to run for Congress. He’s independently wealthy and largely self-funded his campaign. He’s insulated from political pressure. We have to fight his proposal by putting pressure on the general assembly, predominantly those who identify as conservative or are at risk of being replaced in the Republican primaries in 2024.
eJournal: Could the United States Supreme Court Bruen decision help keep red flag laws out of TN?
Harris: Absolutely. TFA was an amicus party in conjunction with Gun Owners of America and filed briefs in the Bruen case, which was decided in June of 2022. It is a game changer in many respects. The standard by which we evaluate constitutionality under the Second Amendment has changed forever They said if the conduct is clearly covered by the scope of the Second Amendment, government regulation is presumptively prohibited. The Second Amendment is much broader than “keeping and bearing.” There are cases that say operating a gun range, being a manufacturer, being in the commerce chain are all covered by the Second Amendment.
The court said that constitutional rights are established in terms of their status at the time that they were ratified – 1791 for the original 10 amendments. In Bruen, the court said in order for government regulation to pass constitutional scrutiny, the burden is on the government to show by clear evidence that, quote, the “nation’s historical tradition,” as it existed in 1791 had a regulation or restriction of exact or very similar nature.
We are seeing the ramifications of Bruen across the nation with a lot of different issues – particularly the 1968 gun control law – being declared unconstitutional. In NY State, for example, two courts have struck down the NY’s red flag law as being in violation of the Bruen standard. There has already been one case filed and settled in TN where the state agreed that an existing state law violated the Bruen standard and not only that it was a violation, but it was a federal civil rights violation. We are telling the legislators, “Guys, you have got to understand, Bruen means something now. If you pass something that violates Bruen, we are planning to immediately challenge it, not only as Second Amendment and Fourteenth Amendment violations, but also as a federal civil rights violation.”
eJournal: That wouldn’t happen without you pushing it forward. What is the funding mechanism for this kind of battle? I ask because there are unusual number of states with which TN shares a border, making for a lot of non-residents directly affected by TN laws. Besides, we worry about bleed-over when a neighboring state passes laws our own politicians want.
Harris: The TFA is a 501(c)(4), an IRS classification that lets it be an issue advocate. By law, we can ask TFA members to make voluntary supplemental contributions. In February when we decided to file suit about the statute making public parks and greenways gun free zones, we made a special call to our members and said, “We’re getting ready to file this lawsuit and are going to have extraordinary expenses. If you can, please plan to make supplemental donations for litigation.” We’re doing the same thing now with respect to funding the litigation to defeat the red flag law in the special session.
We’re raising money through the political action committee TFALAC which can take public contributions from anybody anywhere in the country and run specifically targeted advertising urging people to vote against or to contact their legislators to vote against specific legislation. Our 501(c)(4) can educate about what the proposal means. The PAC can specifically advocate for action to defeat the proposal. We’re getting donations through both, including support from industry members and manufacturers to defeat this red flag proposal.
We need to get the information out, not just to Tennesseans, but like you said, we’ve got a number of border states and cities in TN like Clarksville, Memphis and Chattanooga that are right on the border. It is also critical to realize that each state can’t be dealt with independently. Because TN is seen as a conservative, “red” state, we do not want it to become the poster child for how to pass red flag and gun control in conservative jurisdictions. We don’t want it to become the template for TX or another southern state and say, “Look, TN did it. They figured out how to do it and we’re going to replicate this.”
Part of the battle is getting the word out to individuals. It’s amazing how many people don’t know what the defects are in a red flag law. A poll initially showed soft support in TN for a red flag law to, “do something!” but once individuals polled learned that the red flag law would only seize firearms but then leave the person with no treatment, no identification, just completely still at large and capable, support dropped to a minority. 84% of the people responding to the poll said it was more important to identify the risk to the person, to get them out of the community, diagnosed and treated, than it was to seize guns.
We’re pushing out information like that through our free, national e-mail list, publishing it on our website, through social media and through interviews like this. We are trying to help people across a broader base see, “Hey, we need to help TN defeat this, because our state might be next.”
eJournal: Network members will feel proud, as I do, to see one of our affiliated attorneys leading this fight. How can Network members help you with this fight?
Harris: Share #RedFlagDown, or the shortcut www.redflagdown.com, TFA Website is https://tennesseefirearms.com/ and TFA PAC is at https://tfalac.org/. On social media we’re at Facebook TFA Page: https://www.facebook.com/Tennfirearms/ and our Facebook TFA Group is at https://www.facebook.com/groups/TennesseeFirearms/. Twitter is @Tennfirearms.
eJournal: That’s great, John! Members, please share those links and let’s pitch in and support this important fight.