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Senate panel advances guns-in-restaurants bill

A Senate panel has approved legislation to allow people who have concealed-weapons permits to bring a handgun into restaurants that sell alcohol.

By the time the committee hearing was held June 8, though, the debate had shifted from whether to have weapons in restaurants to how best to implement the policy.

The Arizona Restaurant Association is now neutral on the bill. In the past, it has opposed legislation to allow guns in restaurants.

Yet the Arizona Licensed Beverage Association remains opposed to the bill. But instead of actively fighting to kill the legislation, the group is seeking compromises as far as how the policy would be implemented.

“We made concessions by coming off of the hard position of no guns in bars or restaurants,” said Don Isaacson, lobbyist for the Arizona Licensed Beverage Association.

The bill, S1113, passed with a 4-3 vote in the Senate Judiciary Committee; Republicans supported it while Democrats were opposed. As amended in committee, the bill would allow people with concealed-weapons permit to carry a gun into restaurants that sell alcohol for on-site consumption – unless the restaurant has posted a sign at the entrances prohibiting the possession of weapons on the premises.

Restaurant owners who do not want guns on their premises can post signs to state that weapons are prohibited. The Arizona Licensed Beverage Association has agreed to that provision, even though it has argued in the past for “affirmative posting,” which means restaurant owners would have to post a sign stating that they allow guns on the premises.

The bill also classifies as a class 3 misdemeanor if a person violates the weapons prohibition.

Todd Rathner, a legislative consultant for the National Rifle Association, told the Arizona Capitol Times his group is willing to consider changing the legislation to satisfy most of the beverage industry’s concerns.

He said the restaurant and beverage associations changed their strategy after Gov. Jan Brewer, a Republican, took over the Ninth Floor.

“In 2005, I think that the restaurant people and the liquor people always knew the governor would veto the bill, and so they fought a different type of a fight,” Rathner said, referring to former Gov. Janet Napolitano. “This time, they have essentially conceded that guns are coming into restaurants.”

Now, it’s all about working through the details, Rathner said.

“It is more about implementation than it is about whether it is going happen,” he said.

The beverage association wants to make sure all signs prohibiting guns in restaurants carry the same, uniform message to avoid confusing patrons. The group also wants the penalty for violating a restaurant’s gun prohibition to be on par with other liquor offenses. In addition, the group wants the policy of whether to allow guns in restaurants to apply to all liquor licenses.

As it’s written now, the legislation makes a distinction between establishments that have a kitchen, allowing only handguns in those premises that have a kitchen and where food is sold. But Isaacson said the distinction is “meaningless” since all establishments have a sink or a microwave.

The beverage association wants “strict liability” to apply to gun owners who violate a restaurant’s prohibition, whether they did so intentionally or not.

“Another way to call it is gun-owner responsibility, which means that if a place is posted it is incumbent on you to know whether or not the place is posted,” Isaacson said. “You have a duty when you walk in to find out if it’s posted or not. You can’t say I didn’t see it.”

But the NRA isn’t keen to that idea.

“The law says strict liability. They (cops) got to lock me up. They can’t just say to me, ‘Sir, this place is posted. You have to leave’,” Rathner said. “This is probably something we are not going to bridge because we are not going to expose gun owners to strict liability.”

Isaacson said his group’s position has been a moving target – but in the direction of compromise.

“But the moving target has been away from ‘no’ to ‘yes.’ We have moved off of ‘no’ to we will consider a ‘yes’,” Isaacson. “Yes, we have been a moving target toward them.”

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