NASHVILLE -- On any given Tuesday, legislative committees in the state House are chock-full of bills, with members working until late in the day or early evening.
But last week, most panels were out by noon. The reason? Any number of eager lawmakers were scrambling to finish so they could attend one of the session's premiere diversions.
That would be the annual "legislative orientation" at the Tullahoma-based Tennessee Army National Guard rifle ranges as well as the federal Arnold Engineering Development Center. At the Guard gun ranges, the invitation reads, lawmakers could test fire weapons, use military simulators and go to the "newest indoor training and urban warfare range."
That might come in pretty handy this year. A political firefight is blazing in the halls of the Republican-controlled General Assembly over proposals that pit gun-rights groups against private employers.
Legislative leaders such as House Speaker Beth Harwell, of Nashville; House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick, of Chattanooga; and Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey, of Blountville, are caught in a crossfire between two staunch GOP constituencies.
At issue are two National Rifle Association-drafted bills. One says businesses and government agencies may not stop gun owners from storing firearms and ammunition in their locked vehicles parked on private or state and local-government owned lots.
The other is labeled the Firearm Discrimination Prevention Act. It would "protect law-abiding gun owners from anti-gun policies by employers," the NRA says.
The NRA and the Tennessee Firearms Association, the NRA's smaller but feisty competitor, are pushing the "employee safe commute" bills as a natural extension of gun owners' Second Amendment rights.
But business groups and major companies, including Memphis-based FedEx, Volkswagen Chattanooga, public and private universities, hospitals and others charge their private property rights will be violated if the bills become law.
"This is one of those cases where you have property interests versus gun-rights interests -- both of which people in my party take very, very seriously," Gov. Bill Haslam said recently.
That's not proving easy. The Tennessee Firearms Association earlier this month labeled McCormick, Harwell and GOP Caucus Chairman Debra Maggart, of Hendersonville, as the "axis of evil" for their efforts to broker a compromise.
Last week Chris Cox, executive director of the NRA's Institute for Legislative Affairs, panned the alternative bill sponsored by McCormick.
"The debate over these bills is about lawsuits versus lives," Cox wrote Harwell and Ramsey. "The business community wants to be able to ban law-abiding Americans from keeping lawfully owned firearms properly stored in their vehicles. Their motivation is to protect their bottom line."
Also last week, a platoon of business groups and large employers trooped before the Senate's Commerce and Judiciary committees to oppose the NRA bills.
VW's general manager for security, Reid Albert, testified that the legislation "would take away our right to control our property and interferes with our ability to take necessary actions to ensure the safety of all our employees."
No action was taken on either bill.
This is the third year for the "guns-in-parking lots" bill. After controversies in recent years over such bills as the "guns-in-bars" law, McCormick and most top GOP leaders had wanted to focus on job-related issues this year.
Polls rank the economy as the top issue on voters' minds this election year.
McCormick's compromise restricts the NRA bill, which currently covers any gun owner, to the 300,000 or so Tennesseans with state-issued handgun-carry permits. Permit holders already undergo criminal background checks and must complete a gun-safety course.
It allows businesses in sensitive areas, such as those processing nuclear waste, to continue barring guns. It also allows businesses to post signs banning guns, McCormick said.
The compromise is that the bill would also prevent business owners from searching vehicles without valid cause. And it provides limited liability for business owners who allow permit holders to store their weapons in locked vehicles.
"Instead of forcing it we would incentivize it," McCormick added.
That being said, McCormick noted, "I would still rather wait until next year to take this up. I think we ought to be talking about jobs rather than guns."
The U.S. Constitution, he said, "was written in order to protect people from the power of government, and I think in this case if we went with the original bill that would be using the Constitution to infringe upon people's rights, their property rights."
McCormick said he's a lifetime NRA member. "I believe in the Second Amendment," McCormick said, but "it doesn't trump all the rights that we have, particularly property rights. We have to be very careful."
Last week, Tennessee Firearms Executive Director John Harris criticized McCormick's bill, slated to come up in a House subcommittee Wednesday.
In an email alert, Harris also fired a warning shot across the bow of his larger competitor, the NRA, stating that if a compromise comes up, it "will likely be negotiated and offered with the blessings of the NRA's lobbyist."
Harris charged "these delay tactics are designed to kill both bills. Do not fall victim to these ploys."
Ramsey has escaped the fire from gun-rights advocates that raked Harwell, McCormick and Maggart.
Still, Ramsey noted last week, "I don't think the NRA is real happy with us right now because they kind of want it to be their way or the highway.
"We have gotten them to concede it needs to be handgun-carry permit holders only," Ramsey said. "But at the same time I understand the private property rights issue."
House Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Turner, of Nashville, said Republicans are "in kind of a pickle on this thing."
"I know a bunch of them are for it, but they've got a dilemma because they're supposed to be pro-business but yet most of them kneel and crawl to the gun groups," Turner observed.
"You can be pro-Second Amendment and pro-gun and not be for that bill," he said. "Because what's the next step? There's already been some talk, not here, but in other places, where they'll be able to take [guns] into the workplace."
Ramsey, meanwhile, is trying to convince business groups that the GOP-run legislature has eliminated as issues many of the things owners traditionally fear most.
"I've even told the business community that this shows how far we've come in the legislature so far as pro-business issues," he said. "Now this seems to be at the top of their list as opposed to fighting labor unions, living wage, fighting workers compensation issues."
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, ...