NASHVILLE - 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, 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 during the last two years, 24 states, mostly in the South and West, have passed 47 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," said 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 employees from storing guns in cars 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.
The AP compiled the data from groups ranging from the Legal Community Against Violence, which advocates gun control, to the NRA.
Public attitudes toward gun control have shifted markedly in the last 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.
Tennessee's new laws came after the Republican takeover of the General Assembly this year, but most other states that loosened restrictions did not 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.
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 is one allowing handguns in bars and restaurants that serve alcohol. Last month, a Nashville judge struck down the law as unconstitutionally vague, but supporters have vowed to pass it again.
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.
Supporters of expanding handgun rights argue that people with state-issued permits are far less likely to commit crimes.
Kristin Rand of the Violence Policy Center, a gun-control group in Washington, disagrees. "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."