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Republicans in Crossfire: Gun Rights vs. Property Rights

High-ranking GOP lawmakers entered this year’s legislative session vowing to steer clear of confrontations over gun legislation. But two months later a showdown is primed between two constituencies Republicans typically like to try to keep happy: Big business and big fans of the Second Amendment.

Republicans in the Tennessee House of Representatives who earlier this year said they wanted to disarm any attempts to expand the rights of gun owners are now trying to broker a compromise that does just that. Their turnabout is in no small part due to political sabre-rattling by the Tennessee Firearms Association, which has a long history of holding state lawmakers’ feet to the fire.

The TFA last week described House Republican leaders as an “axis of evil” for “pandering” to businesses interests that oppose the Legislature granting Tennesseans the express legal authority to keep a firearm locked in their vehicle if it is parked on a company’s property.

TFA’s executive director, Nashville attorney John Harris, accused Republicans of being interested first and foremost in trying to “appease the Big Business – big money investors in House leadership.”

“Sadly for conservatives, this support is apparently based more on Chicago-style influence peddling for dollars rather than supporting bills based on conservative and constitutional principles that directly impact the citizens,” Harris wrote in a March 1 TFA member alert.

But even if such language hits the bullseye as far as gun-rights activists are concerned, one of TFA’s favorite lawmakers says it’s off-putting to GOP politicians. Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, a Republican from Blountville, finds TFA’s penchant for firing off volleys of bombast a bit disagreeable.

“It upsets me some, what he’s said about Republicans and others,” Ramsey said of Harris. “The way he has acted is not the way you win friends and influence people.”

Harris said he respectfully disagrees. Tough political tactics and a take-no-prisoners rhetorical style worked pretty well when Democrats ran the show on Capitol Hill — and there’s no reason to go soft now that the GOP has the reins, he suggested.

“When they put their necks out and do stuff, and we don’t like it, and we tell people about it, they take some offense to it,” Harris told TNReport. “We’re not going to tone it down just because they’re unhappy.”

Harris said there’s a natural tendency for politicians of all stripes to claim they’re friends to this or that issue- or interest-group during campaign season, then ignore the people who got them elected after the ballots are counted. Tennessee gun-rights advocates have become particularly sensitive over the years to seeing bills they favor bottled up in legislative committees even though they’d likely pass if put to a floor vote, he said.

House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick, of Chattanooga, has agreed to assemble a bill that would allow workers to lock guns in their cars under certain circumstances. Meanwhile, Rep. Eddie Bass, D-Prospect, and Sen. Mike Faulk, R-Church Hill, have a TFA-backed proposal — HB3559 — to allow all gun owners to stow their guns in locked vehicles on employers’ public and private parking lots.

McCormick says his plan to introduce a scaled-back guns in parking lots bill is “an attempt to do it right,” although he said he is still working on an amendment to rewrite HB3660 and declined to provide details about what the legislation would include.

“While we’d rather concentrate on jobs and the economy this year, some of our members would rather talk about guns, and we just want to do it in a responsible way,” he said Thursday.

The Tennessee Chamber of Commerce and other opponents to the legislation presented their case to a pair of Senate committee Tuesday. The chamber sent a letter to each member of the General Assembly pressing them to drop the plan because it would pose “a major infringement on private property rights.”

“Supporters of this legislation argue that this enhances individual rights, but you cannot expand rights for one person by restricting the rights of another. And you cannot use more government regulation to create less regulation,” read the letter signed by 18 interest groups ranging from chambers of commerce, the Tennessee Retail Association and the Tennessee Business Roundtable.

Last month the Senate Judiciary Committee heard from advocates of granting individuals legal protection to keep a firearm locked in a vehicle parked on an employer’s property.

Harris maintains that appealing to property-rights arguments as justification for prohibiting an employee from keeping a legally owned firearm locked in his or her own car is something of a red herring. “What right does the employer have to regulate what an employee decides they’re going to transport in their vehicle?” he said.

Ramsey says chances are ultimately pretty good that whatever guns-in-parking-lots bill the Legislature ends up passing won’t be altogether satisfying to the Tennessee Firearms Association.

“I can’t tell you where we’re going to end up on this. But in the end, there’s a real possibility that TFA won’t be happy, the NRA won’t be happy, but I think we’ll have reached a compromise that will get 17 and 50 votes,” said the lieutenant governor.

Gov. Bill Haslam told reporters after speaking to the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce Tuesday morning that “Republicans believe in property rights, and they believe in 2nd Amendment rights.”

“We talk a lot about balance,” said the governor. “This is one of those when getting the balance right is important.”

Mark Engler contributed to this report.

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Guns-in-Parking-Lots Compromise Could Win Haslam Support

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.

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1-2-3, Go! Redistricting Maps Advance

Tweaks to the lines on redrawn Democratic districts in the state House came down to something like a game of Rock-Paper-Scissors.

House lawmakers approved the new maps 67-25-3 Thursday. Speaker Beth Harwell said she had politely encouraged Democrats to throw some votes her party’s way for the sake of bipartisanship appearances.

“I said to (Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Turner), ‘If we are making these concessions for some of your members, I would appreciate votes from your caucus,’” she said.

That left the #1 and #2 Democrats to figure out who would make Harwell feel appreciated.

“I’d like to think it was a little punitive, maybe, because the discussions were pretty hot and heavy,” Turner, of Old Hickory, said. … “I thought it was worth that to save a couple of our members.”

Turner threw down rock to Leader Craig Fitzhugh’s paper in their session to make sure the speaker got at least one leadership vote from their side. Turner was one of six Democrats who voted in favor of the Republican-drawn maps, while Fitzhugh toed the party line.

“Everybody we had that was paired, we tried to do so something about that,” said Turner, who had been one of the most vocal critics of GOP maps. “In areas where it didn’t impact their members, they decided to give us a couple of those back.”

In the final hours before the map was approved by the chamber, Republicans agreed to make these concessions to preserve incumbent advantage:

  • Separate Democrats Sherry Jones and Mike Stewart, who had been drawn into the same south Nashville district.
  • Return Rep. Eddie Bass, D-Prospect, to the district he represents now. He had been lumped into the same district as Rep. Vance Dennis, R-Savannah.
  • Adjust the lines in the district represented by Harry Tindell, D-Knoxville.

Democrats pitched a handful of other amendments to the maps on the House floor, mainly attempts to make more Shelby County districts represent a greater percentage of minorities. All those attempts failed.

The maps fell “way short on minority representation,” according to Turner, although he said he wanted to talk to the Tennessee Democratic Party, the General Assembly’s Black Caucus and other “interested parties” before deciding whether to challenge the lawsuit in court.

Harwell said the Democratic votes symbolize that the map has bipartisan support.

“Bottom line is, surely it sends a clear message that a majority of the members in this General Assembly is pleased with it, and I think the people of this state will be well represented by this map,” she said. “No one can doubt that we have drawn these lines fairly, that there’s proper representation from each district.”

In the new map, sitting House members who would have to run against other legislators (unless they relocated) are situated in:

  • District 28 in Hamilton County: Tommie Brown, D-Chattanooga, and Joanne Favors, D-Chattanooga
  • District 31 in Sequatchie, Bledsoe, Rhea and part of Roane counties: Jim Cobb, R-Spring City, and Bill Harmon, D-Dunlap
  • District 86 in Shelby County: Barbara Cooper, D-Memphis, and G.A. Hardaway, D-Memphis
  • District 98 in Shelby County: Jeanne Richardson, D-Memphis, and Antonio Parkinson, D-Memphis

The Senate is expected to vote on its maps and OK the House drawings Friday. If approved by both chambers, the maps will go to the governor for his approval.

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Anti-Tax Tootin’ in Giles Co.

Horn-honking motorists stepped up the pressure on Giles County officials Monday, who dropped their bid for a county wheel tax, WKSR in Pulaski reports.

County commissioners were set to consider a resolution asking the Tennessee Legislature for permission to enact a $50 wheel tax. One commissioner said the resolution had already been pulled from the agenda Friday, and state Rep. Eddie Bass said there would not be time to pass the bill this legislative session, which may end this week.

But as WKSR reports, a healthy dose of the First Amendment in the form of “car horns blaring from the street below” surely didn’t hurt.

Meanwhile, the budget talks in Cookeville are heavy on the honey, low on the vinegar.

The city estimates it will take in $100,000 in tax from liquor sales in the first full year for package stores to be permitted there, the Herald-Citizen reported last week. The city’s $21 million proposed budget for the 2012 represents a more than 5 percent increase over this year, with no property tax increase.

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Ag Committee Batters Animal Abuse Bill

A measure to expand the state’s animal cruelty law to cover livestock may not have a political leg to stand on after lawmakers beat it up in a legislative committee Tuesday.

Livestock are in fact protected by animal cruelty laws, but the aggravated animal cruelty provision only punishes individuals who hurt non-livestock animals, like dogs and cats.

Animal cruelty includes overworking, not caring for, or abandoning animals. Aggravated animal cruelty would include intentionally killing or causing serious physical injury to livestock.

Under the bill, causing such harm to livestock animals would be a Class E felony, punishable by one to six years behind bars, and a fine of up to $3,000. Currently, animal cruelty to livestock is a Class A misdemeanor, punishable by up to a year in jail and a fine of up to $2,500.

Rep. Janis Baird Sontany, D-Nashville, who is sponsoring HB3386, told members of the House Agriculture Committee that she believes a link exists between harming animals and committing violence against humans.

“If you think back at all of the cases we’ve had about the school shootings…each of those young men were known to have abused animals,” said Sontany. They “set cats on fire, kill dogs by shooting them. There are studies over and over again that do talk about that,” she said.

Sontany acknowledged there are some provisions to protect livestock in the law presently. But she added that the laws on the books are not being well enough enforced.

Because such crimes status under current law are not felonies, many prosecutors choose not to pursue the cases, Sontany said.

“The DA says ‘it’s a misdemeanor – I won’t prosecute,’” she said, adding that prosecutors often cite their heavy caseloads as a reason they don’t fully investigate and bring charges. “I’m trying to give them tools in their belt to encourage them to prosecute.”

The bill’s opponents, however, aired a number of complaints against the measure. Several lawmakers, including Morriston Democrat Rep. John Litz, questioned whether increasing penalties would indeed translate to more prosecutions and convictions.

“If the DAs are not doing and enforcing the laws that we have now, what makes you think that increasing it more is going to make them do any different?” he asked. “Do we have room in these jails and these prisons to be able to put people who are out here that commit heinous crimes against animals?”

Litz also warned that farmers may be falsely accused of violations by people unfamiliar with agriculture practices. He related one situation in which a “witness” filed a complaint against a farmer after observing a cow that appeared too skinny. The person who made the report just didn’t know the difference between a beef cow and a milk cow, said Litz.

“(The individual) didn’t know that a dairy cow was not supposed to be big and fat and plump — that they’re supposed to be lean – their purpose is to produce milk,” he said.

The Tennessee Farm Bureau is lobbying heavily against the bill largely for that reason. Leaders in that organization worry people who don’t understand common livestock-management practices might file unnecessary complaints against farmers, in turn possibly costing them time and money to defend against.

The group’s opposition has drawn fire from supporters of the legislation, but committee members such as Rep. Eddie Bass, D-Prospect, tried to deflect that criticism, saying The Farm Bureau is representing the farmers of Tennessee. “Farm Bureau is doing what their group wants them to do. They are representing what Farm Bureau is all about,” he said, adding that both his local bureau chapters are against the bill.

Sontany said the Farm Bureau is part of the problem in her quest to protect animals.

“I did go to Farm Bureau when I drafted this bill to ask if they would work with me and to come up with something we could all be comfortable with and they refused,” she said. “They’re the 800 pound gorilla that walks around (the legislature). They’ve got the clout – not me (as) one legislator. I would welcome their help, but all I get is ‘No.’ They’re not going to negotiate in any way.”

A vote on the bill is expected in next week’s Agriculture Committee hearing after the panel hears from district attorneys about prosecuting cases of animal abuse of livestock.