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Who Knew? AK-47 is a Handgun in Tennessee

By Robyn Hagan Cain | Last updated on

Tennessee law allows individuals with gun permits to carry handguns in state-owned public places, like parks and "natural areas." State law defines a "handgun" as "any firearm with a barrel length of less than twelve inches" that is "designed, made or adapted" to be fired with one hand.

That means an AK-47 is a handgun in Tennessee.

But sometimes law enforcement officials aren't so good at spotting 12-inches from 20 paces. Occasionally, guys wielding guns get detained.

We'll let Judge Jeffrey Sutton explain the relevant facts from this Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals case:

Armed with knowledge of this [Tennessee handgun law] and one thing more -- a Draco AK-47 pistol -- Leonard Embody went to Radnor Lake State Natural Area, a state park near Nashville, Tennessee, on a Sunday afternoon. Dressed in camouflage, he slung the gun with its eleven-and-a-half-inch barrel across his chest along with a fully loaded, thirty-round clip attached to it.

Embody knew that packing heat might bring the heat -- he even brought an audio-recorder to document his weekend park adventures.

Park patrons expressed concerns about a camo-bedecked, gun-toting park-goer to a Ranger Steve Ward, who proceeded to disarm and detain Embody. After determining that the AK-47 is a legitimate pistol under Tennessee law, Ward released him.

Embody sued Ward, claiming that Ward had violated his Second, Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment rights.

According to the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, Ward permissibly disarmed and detained Embody, regardless of Embody's right to possess the gun.

Before conducting a temporary investigatory stop, a law enforcement officer must have a reasonable suspicion of criminal activity based on specific and articulable facts that the officer knows at the time of the stop. The length of the stop and the extent of intrusion must be "reasonably related in scope to the circumstances which justified the interference." Officers have to "diligently pursue" an investigation in a way that quickly confirms or dispels their suspicions.

Here, the court noted that Embody carried an AK-47 openly and fully-loaded through a state park. The barrel was a half-inch shy of the legal limit, and, when coupled with the 30-round ammunition clip, it reasonably could look more like a rifle than a handgun. Ward had ample reason to believe that something was amiss.

Rangers detained Embody for over two hours, but the appellate court reasoned that the officers took only the time needed to determine whether the AK-47 was a handgun, whether Embody had a permit for it, whether he had illegally modified it, and whether he posed any other safety threats.

The question here wasn't whether Embody committed a crime, but whether officers reasonably suspected that he had committed a crime.

A gun permit holder is welcome to waive his gun around a Tennessee park, but it's unlikely he'll succeed in a civil rights claim if rangers detain him.

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