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 last 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.
— Tennessee and Montana have passed laws that exempt weapons made and owned in-state from federal restrictions. Tennessee is the home to Barrett Firearms Manufacturing, the maker of a .50-caliber shoulder-fired rifle that the company says can shoot bullets up to five miles and is banned in California.
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.
"The NRA has a stranglehold on a lot of state legislatures," said Kristin Rand, legislative director the Violence Policy Center, a gun control group in Washington. "They basically have convinced lawmakers they can cost them their seats, even though there's no real evidence to back that up."
Tennessee's new laws came after the Republican takeover of the General Assembly this year, but most other states that loosened restrictions didn't experience major partisan shifts. Most of the states where the new laws were enacted have large rural populations, where support for gun rights tends to cross party lines.
While some states have tightened gun laws during the same period, the list of new restrictive laws is much shorter. In 2009 alone, more than three times as many laws were passed to make it easier on gun owners.
New Jersey's 2009 law limiting people to one handgun purchase per month is the most notable of the more restrictive laws. Other examples this year include Maryland's ban on concealed weapons on public transit and Maine's vote to give public universities and colleges the power to regulate firearms on campus.
The most contentious of Tennessee's new gun laws was one allowing handguns in bars and restaurants that serve alcohol. It took effect in July after lawmakers overrode a veto by the governor. Last month, a Nashville judge struck down the law as unconstitutionally vague, but supporters have vowed to pass it again.
A similar Arizona law that took effect in September allows people with concealed-weapons permits to bring their guns into bars and restaurants that haven't posted signs banning them.
While Tennessee's law was in place, many bars chose not to let customers bring guns in. Likewise, more than 70 communities have opted out of allowing guns in parks.
"People go in there and start drinking and then they want to start a fight. What are they going to do if they got a gun in their hand?" said Larry Speck, 69, who works at an auto repair shop in Memphis. "I've got a gun permit and I'm not carrying mine in there even if they have a law."
Chattanooga retiree Ken Hasse, 71, said he worries about the possible consequences of allowing people to carry their guns in places like parks. "It's going to tempt somebody to use one," he said.
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.
A Violence Policy Center project has mined news reports to find that more than 100 people have been killed by holders of handgun-carry permits since 2007, including nine law enforcement officers. The project originally intended to list all gun crimes by permit holders, but there were too many to keep track of, Rand said.
"They shoot each other over parking spaces, at football games and at family events," Rand said. "The idea that you're making any place safer by injecting more guns is just completely contradicted by the facts."
The flood of legislative victories in Tennessee after many years of frustration now has some gun backers aiming for a whole new level of freedom: No permits at all.
The permit laws "are an extra burden on people to exercise essentially a constitutional right," said John Harris, executive director of the Tennessee Firearms Association.
© Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.