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Bills expanding gun carry rights trigger controversies

January 27, 2016

Concerns from the disparate treatment of minorities who police find in possession of firearms to the threat of domestic violence weighed against two proposals in the Legislature to expand who the state should permit to carry handguns, and where.

The senator who introduced both bills, Sen. Jim Tomes, R-Wadesville, on Jan. 19 withdrew his proposal to erase “alcohol abusers” from state law defining who would not be a “proper person” to receive a permit to carry a handgun. The bill was the subject of a sometimes-argumentative and confused hearing Jan. 13 over whether people the law defines as alcohol abusers are currently allowed to obtain carry permits, and whether they should.

tomes-jim-mug Tomes

Separately, Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee endorsed allowing General Assembly staff members to carry handguns in the Capitol over objections from African-American lawmakers.

Guns and ‘alcohol abusers’

Indiana University Maurer School of Law professor Jody Madeira was among those who testified against Senate Bill 36. She later said she was surprised the measure was withdrawn. The bill would have removed the alcohol abuser language.

“I think they realized it was a situation that could not be fixed in a week,” Madeira said. “There are deeper issues here that they really had to contend with,” she said. Statutes define alcohol abusers as those convicted of two or more alcohol-related offenses, any of them within the past three years.

madeira-jody-mug Madeira

At the bill’s introductory hearing in the Senate Judiciary Committee Jan. 13, Tomes and several senators insisted Indiana State Police are confused by the language and don’t enforce it, and some senators called the language meaningless.

But that does not appear to be the case.

“ISP enforces the laws enacted by the General Assembly. Presently, an alcohol abuser is not a proper person to receive a firearms license,” Indiana State Police Chief Public Information Officer Capt. Dave Bursten said.

A spokesperson for Tomes said he had no comment on why he withdrew SB 36.

Madeira and others noted the Legislature would not have included alcohol abusers in the relevant statutes without intending to do so.

Tomes testified there were “misconceptions” about the bill, and that enforcing the provision could trip up good people who seek a carry permit but have just made a couple of mistakes in their lives.

“It just doesn’t make sense” why the language is in the statute, Tomes said. He said ISP applications for gun permits don’t ask whether someone is an alcohol abuser but rather ask applicants if they have been convicted of operating a vehicle while intoxicated – language he said should have no bearing on the right to a carry permit, unless the conviction is a felony.

Many opponents of the bill wore T-shirts in support of groups such as Everytown for Gun Safety and Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America. In a statement, the groups called SB 36 “absurd.”

Barring alcohol abusers, opponents said, was a reasonable restriction on firearms rights alongside many others.

Kathy Williams of the Indiana Coalition Against Domestic Violence told senators that law enforcement officials report up to 80 percent of domestic violence runs involve alcohol. Nationally, of the approximately 1,000 women killed each year by intimate partners, she said 70 percent of those deaths involved handguns.

Madeira testified lawmakers meant to include a policy statement that alcohol abusers have forfeited their right to a carry permit. She noted in many cases misdemeanor convictions result from crimes initially charged as felonies, and those barred under the statute are repeat alcohol offenders. Such people “cannot be categorized as law-abiding and responsible,” she testified.

Madeira asked for further study before a vote. When several people applauded her opposition to the bill, Sen. Michael Young, R-Indianapolis, told people in the audience, “We don’t do that in here.”

Carrying at the Capitol

Tomes also authored Senate Bill 259, in which Indiana General Assembly staff members would be allowed to carry handguns inside the state Capitol. It was recommended for passage on a party-line vote Jan. 20 by the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Republican members favored the bill 6-3 after two Democratic senators expressed concerns about the legislation given recent high-profile examples around the country of African-Americans who legally carry guns facing sometimes-lethal responses from law enforcement.

Tomes said legislative assistants and other General Assembly staff members often are in the Statehouse late at night and should have the same rights as lawmakers to carry guns under the Capitol Rotunda. He said staffers don’t have the luxury of parking next to the Statehouse as lawmakers do, and they may face dangers walking to dark downtown parking garages at night.

“We’re living in a violent world, and it’s unfortunate we have to think upon these terms today, but as you watch the local news, you see how violent the world is,” Tomes testified in support of the bill. “It’s necessary now for people to have an opportunity to protect themselves.”

Sen. Greg Taylor, D-Indianapolis, challenged Tomes to identify the number of attacks on legislators or staff at the Capitol since he became a member of the Legislature. Tomes said he wasn’t aware of any, but he said crime was expected to rise in Indianapolis. “In this area, there is trouble out and about,” he said.

“As someone from a minority persuasion,” Taylor said, “if I walk in this building with a gun, I still get stopped by security, senator, it is the day and time we live in.” He said the legislation “is a scary proposition for me.

“I know what carrying a firearm can lead to, even by a law-abiding citizen,” he said.

Committee chairman Brent Steele, R-Bedford, a co-author of the bill, said that as a senator, Taylor wouldn’t go through metal detectors at the Statehouse as the public does, and he wouldn’t be subjected to a search.

But Taylor said that wasn’t his point. “If I said I had a firearm when the police stop me, it will be a totally different situation,” he said. “I’m the spitting image of, it does happen.”

Taylor also asked whether other statehouse regulars such as lawyers and lobbyists should be permitted to carry weapons in the Capitol. “It would be nice,” Tomes said. “Where’s the limit? I don’t know.”

Sen. Lonnie Randolph, D-East Chicago, also was troubled by the bill. He said a general ban on statehouse staffers carrying firearms was adopted in the 1990s after a rash of shootings in government offices nationwide.

“There were discussions about security at the Statehouse here,” Randolph said. “Sometimes people get heated, they get mad, and an irrational person might reach for a sidearm.”

Randolph also said given police shootings of law-abiding black people who were carrying guns in Chicago and elsewhere around the country, he couldn’t support the bill in the current climate.

Sen. John Broden, D-South Bend, also voted against the bill.•

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