NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) - It's been the year of the gun in Tennessee. In a flurry of legislative action, handgun owners won the right to take their weapons onto sports fields and playgrounds and, at least briefly, into bars.
A change in leadership at the state Capitol helped open the doors to the gun-related bills and put Tennessee at the forefront of a largely unnoticed trend: In much of the country, it is getting easier to carry guns.
A nationwide review by The Associated Press found that over the past two years, 24 states, mostly in the South and West, have passed 47 new laws loosening gun restrictions.
Among other things, legislatures have allowed firearms to be carried in cars, made it illegal to ask job candidates whether they own a gun, and expanded agreements that make permits to carry handguns in one state valid in another.
The trend is attributed in large part to a push by the National Rifle Association. The NRA, which for years has blocked attempts in Washington to tighten firearms laws, has ramped up its efforts at the state level to chip away at gun restrictions.
"This is all a coordinated approach to respect that human, God-given right of self defense by law-abiding Americans," says Chris W. Cox, the NRA's chief lobbyist. "We'll rest when all 50 states allow and respect the right of law-abiding people to defend themselves from criminal attack."
Among the recent gun-friendly laws:
• Arizona, Florida, Louisiana and Utah have made it illegal for businesses to bar their employees from storing guns in cars parked on company lots.
• Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana, South Carolina and Virginia have made some or all handgun permit information confidential.
• Montana, Arizona and Kansas have allowed handgun permits to be issued to people who have had their felony convictions expunged or their full civil rights restored.
The AP compiled the data on new laws from groups ranging from the Legal Community Against Violence, which advocates gun control, to the NRA.
Public attitudes toward gun control have shifted strongly over the past 50 years, according to Gallup polling. In 1959, 60 percent of respondents said they favored a ban on handguns except for "police and other authorized persons." Gallup's most recent annual crime survey in October found 71 percent opposed such a ban.
The NRA boasts that almost all states grant handgun permits to people with clean criminal and psychological records. In 1987, only 10 states did. Only Wisconsin, Illinois and the District of Columbia now prohibit the practice entirely.
Supporters of expanding handgun rights argue that people with state-issued permits are far less likely to commit crimes, and that more lawfully armed people cause a reduction in crime. Opponents fear that more guns could lead to more crime.
Academics are divided on the effects of liberalized handgun laws, and determining the impact is complicated by the move in several states to close handgun permit records.