NASHVILLE -- Tenth Senate District Republican primary candidate Todd Gardenhire says he backs the National Rifle Association's "guns in parking lots" legislation, but two candidates running in the Democratic primary, Quenston Coleman and Andraé McGary, say they oppose it.
Meanwhile, Gardenhire's Republican opponent in the Aug. 2 GOP primary, Greg Vital, finds himself in the middle on a dispute that has the NRA and businesses at one another's throats.
And the third Democratic candidate, David Testerman, questions why lawmakers ever placed limits on where handgun-carry permit holders can go armed in the first place.
Gardenhire said the "Safe Commute Act" legislation is clear cut for him.
"I support someone having their own gun in their own car, locked and stored," he said. "That's their business."
The legislation failed to pass in the Republican-led General Assembly last session as a result of the fight that erupted between the NRA and businesses. The NRA said it ensures the rights of employees to protect themselves while going to and from work. Businesses say it violates their private property rights.
Republican leaders tried unsuccessfully to broker a compromise.
The measure blocks businesses and other entities from banning employees and others with state handgun-carry permits from storing firearms in their locked vehicles while parked on most private and public parking lots.
Angry that the bill never came up for a vote last session, the NRA blames GOP leaders. The group's latest disclosure shows it is putting some $75,000 into defeating House GOP Caucus Chairman Debra Maggart, R-Hendersonville, in her contested primary.
McGary said the NRA "is clearly showing they have no respect for folks' personal property rights" with its legislation. "They want to make gun rights absolute."
Coleman said "the legislation might have had a good intent, but it goes too far and we have to look at the public safety needs when it comes to things like that more than individual rights to bear arms."
"If they introduce it next year in the same form that it's in, I will oppose it," he said.
Vital said there are merits on both sides of the arguments.
"I think in legislation it's all in the wording," Vital said. "I think we need to protect people's rights and their abilities to own [guns] and keep their freedoms. But at the same time we have private property rights on the other side of the spectrum."
Noting he is an NRA member, Vital said he likes the group's Second Amendment advocacy and support of other "constitutional freedoms and protections. At the same time, I'll be talking to the folks in the district on how they want us to vote on that. That includes small businesses, large businesses and constituents."
Testerman blamed legislators for the problem by creating areas where handgun permit holders can go armed and where they can't.
"It just seems to me we're taking that right and by creating these issues where you're giving a person a right to take it [gun] somewhere, it's almost as if you're limiting them," he said. Criminals, he added, are not bound by such limitations.
The state's original 1996 handgun permit law created a statewide system for issuing permits, superseding local law enforcement's say-so. But the law limited where owners can go. Republicans have since extended the law's application in areas like restaurants and bars selling liquor, provided the permit holder does not drink.
These and other businesses can post signs barring guns on their property.
Asked whether he was advocating allowing permit holders to go anywhere, Testerman said, "I'd open this up to say if this is an issue let's have a real public debate." There are more pressing issues to debate like job creation, he noted.
Gardenhire sketched out a situation he said underlies the need for the NRA proposal: A hunter who has bagged a deer and has his gun in the vehicle pulls into a chain-operated gas station.
The clerk, following the company's guidelines, points out the situation to a law enforcement officer who cites or even arrests the hunter.
"That's not right," Gardenhire said. "The responsible gun owners are not the problem. It's the idiots out there that are the problem. And you can never control them, I don't care what you do. I think every law enforcement agency in the world has always considered the automobile to be the property of the private owners."
McGary said that with the NRA "it's always one bill and then the next -- and then the next. The problem is the next bill is always worse than the one before it. They're always pushing the agenda. As long as you got guys in the GOP who kowtow to the NRA then they'll continue to do it."
Contact staff writer Andy Sher at email@example.com or 615-255-0550.
Andy Sher is a Nashville-based staff writer covering Tennessee state government and politics for the Times Free Press. A Washington correspondent from 1999-2005 for the Times Free Press, Andy previously headed up state Capitol coverage for The Chattanooga Times, worked as a state Capitol reporter for The Nashville Banner and was a contributor to The Tennessee Journal, among other publications. Andy worked for 17 years at The Chattanooga Times covering police, health care, county government, ...