A Tennessee city council votes to allow members to carry concealed guns during meetings

A Tennessee city council approved a motion this week allowing its members to begin carrying concealed firearms during council meetings.

The move in Athens, Tennessee, came after nearly 20 minutes of discussion and is likely to spark ongoing debate. Tennessee has been at the center of high-profile debates over firearms in the wake of the Covenant School shooting in Nashville in March and a special legislative session in August aimed at public safety.

Athens, a city of 14,000 residents about 60 miles south of Knoxville, is the county seat of McMinn County.

Vice Mayor Larry Eaton pushed the measure to allow members to carry guns over concerns for his personal safety. The motion would only allow for council members to carry concealed weapons who have a permit and would not include city residents attending meetings.

"This is something that I think that needs to be done because of some of the events that have been happening," Eaton said.

Eaton told The Tennessean he began receiving threats after the city's library removed an LGBTQ display and books Eaton believed to be "pornographic," saying the children's book detailed sexual acts.

Following the display and book removal, Eaton said he has received verbal threats and what he calls written threats after people wrote "F---k Larry Eaton in Bibles."

"If they're willing to deface a Bible in this area, knowing that really upsets a lot of people, what would they do next," Eaton said. "We're in the Bible belt."

Since the display's removal in June, Eaton said he and mayor Steven Sherlin were accused of trying to defund the library, something he said the city has a maintenance agreement and cannot do. He said he was not responsible for the removal of the display or books, saying he mentioned the books being "pornographic" to the library board.

During Tuesday's meeting, council member Dick Pelley asked Eaton if he did not feel safe with police present at meetings.

"No, I don't," Eaton replied. "I've been right outside when the police was threatened ... there's no police officers on the outside. We have had the former city manager have one of the councilpersons escorted out with police."

Eaton said he was physically threatened in the presence of police outside of city hall. Eaton said officers did not give him a police report to fill out.

"I don't think I have adequate protection upon myself or my family, especially if they are going into the chambers," Eaton said.

While he believes Athens Police do the best they can to serve, there is only one officer for security during council meetings and the police chief who is there to deliver monthly reports. Adding more would be challenging as Eaton said the department is down between four and six officers.

Adding metal detectors was another option, but one Eaton said would be too costly.

Council member Frances Witt-McMahan said during the meeting she lives in a house divided when it comes to gun ownership. Tuesday she said she had to vote on the motion with her beliefs.

"I can't agree to vote to have guns here," Witt-McMahan said. "I would like to believe that our police chief and any of the officers and even the two gentlemen on the other door are going to react or act in our best interest if we were threatened."

Witt-McMahan said she was the council member escorted out by police before, but has faith in the police to do their job.

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One concern council member Jordan Curtis mentioned was granting carrying permission to council members and not the rest of the people in the building and audience.

Being an elected official, Eaton said he knows people will disagree with his stance on issues in the city, he encourages those rights. But he said the level of hatred he believes has been directed towards he and Sherlin have made him fear for his safety.

Sherlin said it is nobody's business whether he has a concealed weapon or not.

"I don't see a problem with council carry if they want, if they want to carry it. I've always felt like teachers ought to be able to carry guns," Sherlin said. "It's lawful. I don't see a problem with it at all with whoever wants to carry."

Sherlin said he believes the death toll would have been lower during mass shootings at schools had teachers carried guns.

Witt-McMahan said if carrying inside city hall were lawful, the council would not have to vote to allow for members to carry concealed firearms.

Pelley said he will never carry or touch a gun. He said he would support those authorized with a permit to carry.

"I have no problem with helping vice mayor Eaton feel a little safe, and if he feels safe carrying one of those horrible things, then I will support him being able to carry one of those things," Pelley said.

The motion passed 3-1 with the lone dissenting vote from Witt-McMahan. Curtis abstained from voting.

Reach reporter Craig Shoup by email at cshoup@gannett.com and on X @Craig_Shoup. To support his work, sign up for a digital subscription to www.tennessean.com.

This article originally appeared on Nashville Tennessean: Athens, Tennessee, council members to carry guns during meetings