Athens, Tennessee, council clears its members to go armed at City Hall

Screenshot / Athens Vice Mayor Larry Eaton, left, talks Tuesday about being threatened at City Hall before he was elected in 2022 in this screenshot of the livestreamed meeting. Also pictured are Mayor Steve Sherlin, center, and council member Dick Pelley.

The City Council in Athens, Tennessee, narrowly approved a measure Tuesday allowing council members and the city manager to go armed in City Hall and at meetings.

The measure passed 3-1 with one abstention.

"This was for the City Council only, not for individuals," Vice Mayor Larry Eaton told fellow council members Tuesday night of his motion. "This is something I think that needs to be done because of some events that have been happening."

Eaton said he has been threatened at City Hall before and since becoming mayor in August 2022. Council members who hold valid carry permits should be allowed to carry their guns at City Hall for their own protection, he said.

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"My motion is for council members, who have a concealed weapons permit from the state of Tennessee, and the city manager, if they feel necessary, to have concealed weapons in the City Hall during meetings or whatever," Eaton said.

Mayor Steve Sherlin seconded the motion to allow discussion.

Athens City Hall has a sign posted at its entrance barring "unauthorized" people — those other than law enforcement — from carrying a weapon into City Hall, officials said.

Council member Dick Pelley asked Eaton whether he felt safe when police were nearby.

"No, I don't," Eaton said, noting an incident he said occurred before he was elected. "I was physically threatened out in the hallway with the police standing there, and I asked for a police report after the former police chief (Cliff Couch) took the gentleman out, and believe it or not, he would not give me a police report."

The former city manager had a council member escorted out by police, Eaton said.

Eaton said council members who want to carry a firearm would present their permit and weapon for examination by the police chief or other appropriate officials to make sure all legal requirements were met.

  photo  Screenshot / Athens Vice Mayor Larry Eaton, second from left, talks Tuesday about being threatened at City Hall before he was elected in 2022 in this screenshot of the livestreamed meeting. Also pictured, from left, council member Frances Witt-McMahan, Mayor Steve Sherlin, council member Dick Pelley and council member Jordan Curtis.

Interim City Attorney Bill Buckley told the council state law doesn't have language that provides allowances for firearms in city buildings. Rather, the law speaks to the council's authority to prohibit or restrict them. The city's current policy only allows authorized people — police officers — to carry a weapon inside the city's building.

Athens' previous policy barring firearms from government meeting places with the exception of police is typical in most places.

Members of the Chattanooga City Council and Hamilton County Commission are not allowed to carry firearms at meetings or in the buildings where they're held, City Attorney Phil Noblett and County Attorney Rheubin Taylor said, respectively, by phone. Likewise, city council members in Cleveland and East Ridge aren't allowed to carry weapons to meetings or City Hall, officials in those towns said.

Athens Councilwoman Frances Witt-McMahan had reservations about the move.

"I personally live in a house divided about guns," she said. "My husband is a big proponent. I am not. And because I have to go with my conscience and my own convictions, I can't agree to vote to have guns here."

Witt-McMahan said she was the council member Eaton referred to who had been threatened in the past and escorted from a city meeting by police for her safety.

"As Larry said, I was escorted by police before," she said. "That's the point. The police did escort me. I didn't have to have my own weapon."

Councilman Jordan Curtis said he was worried the authorization for council and the city manager provided special permissions for them where ordinary people had none.

"This is difficult, because I'm very supportive of people's right to carry, especially those who have a permit," Curtis said, "but the concern I have is just granting a privilege to council that the rest of the people in this building, in the audience, aren't allowed to have."

(READ MORE: Athens, Tennessee, man will have to tear down building after losing First Amendment appeal)

Sherlin said he saw no problem with council members carrying firearms and contended that if teachers had been allowed to be trained to carry firearms where school shootings have occurred, the outcome might have been different and the death toll might have been lower.

"It's nobody's business whether I have one or not, a carry permit, and whether I carry or not is my business, the state's business. I don't see a problem with council carrying," he said.

Pelley voiced support for licensed gun owners but expressed a disdain for firearms.

"I will never, ever, ever — never ever, ever — carry or touch a gun," Pelley said. "My position on guns is very clear. But I would support authorized people who are licensed. I have no problem helping Vice Mayor Eaton feel a little safer. If he feels safe carrying one of those horrible things, then I will support him being able to carry one of those things."

When the council voted, Eaton, Sherlin and Pelley favored the measure, Curtis abstained and Witt-McMahan voted no.

Contact Ben Benton at [email protected] or 423-757-6569.

  photo  Athens government photo / Athens Vice Mayor Larry Eaton