Gov. Bill Haslam hinted this week he wouldn’t necessarily shoot down legislation that would allow Tennessee gun owners to keep a firearm stored in their vehicle while they are at work — even over the objection of their employer.
Still, the proposal idling in the General Assembly seems “overly broad” to the governor. But during a meeting with the Capitol press corps Wednesday, Haslam suggested that if the House and Senate can pass a compromise, he’ll likely sign on.
Sen. Mike Faulk and Rep. Eddie Bass are sponsoring the legislation, which gained some traction last year but not enough to win over GOP leaders in the House.
Proponents are confident it would pass if Speaker Beth Harwell, of Nashville, and Majority Leader Gerald McCormick, of Chattanooga, were to allow the bill to come to the chamber floor for a vote.
Harwell has said she’s sensitive to employers’ private property rights, and for that reason the legislation gives her pause.
“We certainly want a piece of legislation that is business-friendly. We are not in the business of doing anything to harm the businesses that we currently have in place in Tennessee,” said Harwell, who added she’s unsure exactly what will be included or deleted from the working proposal.
Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, R-Blountville, strongly supports the parking-lot bill, saying he understands businesses want to maintain their private property rights, “but there are some almost public parking lots that people should be allowed to do that (travel with a firearm) if you’re a gun carry permit holder and if you keep it in your car.”
In its current draft, the bill prevents employers from preventing employees from keeping a firearm locked in their own vehicle while parked on company property during work hours.
“It is the intent of this section to reinforce and protect the right of each citizen to lawfully transport and store firearms within his or her private motor vehicle for lawful purposes in any place where the vehicle is otherwise permitted to be,” according to the bill. Bass says he’ll move the House version after it wins approval from the Senate.
“We’re neutral and will stay that way,” said Jim Brown, Tennessee director of the National Federation of Independent Business, one of the few business groups hugging the sidelines. “We have members who are on both sides of that issue between 1st and 2nd Amendment rights.”
The governor is concerned with the “scope of location” in the Faulk-Bass legislation, according to his spokesman, but Haslam says if a deal is doable he won’t block it.
“The current bill that’s out there is overly broad, and we’d like to see it addressed some more, which I think is in the process,” the governor said.
Backing the bill is the Tennessee Firearms Association, which has been breathing down the House Republican leadership’s collective neck for the last few months for refusing to extend the state’s gun rights laws ahead of the 2012 elections.
The TFA has been pressuring lawmakers, namely Harwell and her caucus’ “shadow operatives,” to take up pro-gun bills instead of “pandering to businesses” by ignoring the legislation.
Haslam said he’s used to hearing such fighting words.
“Five times a day I’ll have somebody say, if I don’t do this, ‘we’re going to unleash all the power of fill-in-the-blank on you,’” Haslam told reporters Wednesday.
He added, though, “I think most veteran lawmakers try to figure out how to weigh all that in and don’t get overly swayed by that.”
Bass said the bill should face an up-or-down vote despite any worries it would distract the Legislature from focusing on issues like the budget and the economy.
“I think if it’s one bill, and if the people don’t like it, they’ll vote it down. That’s how the system works. We all have opinions,” he told TNReport.
A Democrat, Bass wouldn’t reveal his plans when asked Wednesday whether he’ll switch party affiliation and run in the August GOP primary.
Bass has won over John Harris, executive director of TFA, who describes Bass as a “consistent supporter of individual rights, particularly for firearms owners.”
For that matter, Harris told TNReport his organization isn’t prone to obsessing over party affiliation when assessing a lawmaker’s reliability as a right-to-keep-and-bear-arms defender. Rural Tennessee Democrats are oftentimes better friends to firearm-carry enthusiasts than urban Republicans, said Harris.
“Independent of whatever partisan label you put on him, Eddie Bass is about as strong a 2nd Amendment supporter as there is in the House,” Harris told TNReport last month when Republicans were thinking about drawing Savannah Republican Vance Dennis and Bass into the same district.
High-ranking House Democrat Mike Turner says he hasn’t recently polled his caucus on the guns in parking lots issue, but is keenly aware business interests are no fans of the idea.
“Traditionally Democrats have not supported the bill, but we’re going to actually talk about that when it comes up,” said Turner. “(Republicans) traditionally want us to bail them out in those types of situations, but we’ll see what happens with that.”
Another bill on the docket this year would ban employers from forcing employees or job applicants to disclose whether they use, own, possess or transport a firearm unless those duties are required for the job.
The Senate Judiciary and Commerce committees expect to hear from proponents of the gun rights bills Feb. 21. The committees will then hear from opponents March 6. Faulk said he hopes the committees will vote on the measures that day.
The Department of Safety has issued 339,000 handgun carry permits to Tennesseans since it took over responsibility for that function in October of 1996, according to the agency’s website. Prior to that handgun carry permits were issued by local sheriff’s offices.
Mark Engler contributed to this report.