Liberty and Justice NewsTracker

Senate Passes ‘Compromise’ Bill Protecting Employee Gun Rights

GOP legislative leaders want debate put to rest

The Tennessee Senate has made quick work of a measure that in 2012 riddled majority-party Republicans with doubt and indecision.

A bill to create state legal protections granting people the express right to keep a firearm stored in their vehicle while they are at work passed overwhelmingly on the Senate floor Monday night, 28-5.

Senate Bill 142 would allow Tennesseans with gun-carry permits to lock a weapon in their automobiles parked on their employer’s property. The bill also contains provisions protecting employers from liability for any accidents or crimes committed on their property with an employee’s firearm.

Senate Commerce and Labor Committee Chairman Jack Johnson, who presented SB142 on behalf its prime sponsor, Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, called the legislation a “solid compromise” between business and gun-rights interests that is “far different, far more narrow in its scope than what was contemplated last year.”

“There are some in the business community who are not comfortable and maybe want to go in a slightly different direction,” said Johnson. “The converse side of that is that there are many advocates out there that feel like the bill is not broad enough.”

“This is one of those issues where I think the speaker and the judiciary committee in looking at it has tried to find a spot that not everyone’s going to be happy with, but is a measured, reasonable spot to accommodate those who have obtained a handgun carry permit, while trying to also be sympathetic to some in our business community,” he said.

The lopsided vote on the bill was mostly a result of the asymmetrical balance of power in the Senate, where Republicans enjoy supermajority control. However, two Democrats, Lowe Finney and Ophelia Ford, voted in favor of the bill. Ford noted during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing last week that she’s “a handgun carrier.”

Another Democrat who disclosed she’s licensed to pack heat, Cookeville Sen. Charlotte Burks, voted against the measure. “This is a no win-win bill for anybody who has to vote and it’s a very hard vote to take,” Burks said. “But I think private-property owners and business-property owners should have a right to voice their opinion as to whether they want anything, not just guns, but anything on their property.”

After delivering a loosely structured disquisition on the Sandy Hook massacre and firearms regulations in Legislative Plaza, Sen. Thelma Harper, D-Nashville, lamented that the Senate was taking up a gun-related bill at such an early stage of the session. “I just think there is something else we can do other than deal with guns,” she said. “There has to be.”

Mark Green, R-Clarksville, suggested that advocates of gun-free zones are deluded in thinking that attempts to ban firearms in certain areas improves safety. “What this bill does is allow guns in places where they have been prohibited before, and thus protect people,” he said. “The only person who can stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun. We do grieve the loss of life, but this bill actually helps prevent that loss.”

Last year the issue exposed fissures within the Republican Party’s ranks on Capitol Hill. The protracted political battle between business interests and gun-rights enthusiasts ran throughout the session and ultimately spilled out into the campaign season. The most high-profile casualty was former House Republican Caucus Chairwoman Debra Maggart, who was defeated in her GOP primary race by Courtney Rogers, a long-shot challenger with little political experience. The National Rifle Association targeted Maggart for elimination from the Legislature for conspiring with other House GOP leaders to block a guns-in-lots floor vote.

This year the two top Republicans in the General Assembly have vowed to get a guns-in-parking lots bill out the door as quickly as possible.

“My prediction, this bill is going pass,” House Speaker Beth Harwell said last week. “I think it is not a priority of this General Assembly, or at least not a priority of the Republican caucus. So I think that as soon as we get it out of the way, the better we are going to be, we can focus on some important issues.”

In an emailed statement following the Senate’s vote Monday, Tennessee Firearms Association executive director John Harris said his group will be lobbying for changes when the House takes up the measure later this week.

“The bill, if passed as is, has the potential to create problems for permit holders who might rely on it in good faith not realizing that they can be terminated for cause if they rely on this bill, that they might be prosecuted for criminal trespass, or that the law might not apply to them unless they personally own the car in which they are commuting,” said Harris.

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