NASHVILLE — A bill letting Tennessee's 375,000 handgun-carry permit holders store firearms in vehicles parked on most public and private lots is on its way to the Senate floor despite concerns voiced by businesses and Gov. Bill Haslam.
The legislation, sponsored by Republican Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey, sailed earlier Tuesday through the Senate Judiciary Committee Monday on an 8-0 vote.
Ramsey later issued a statement saying he was pleased the panel voted on "a bipartisan basis to allow gun permit holders to keep their firearms securely locked in their vehicles while at work."
"This bill ensures that private property rights are respected while gun owners are protected," he said.
Haslam has voiced reservations about the bill's inclusion of K-12 schools as well as colleges and universities. Last year's version of the bill died amid a strong lobbying effort by businesses who charged the legislation amounted to government infringement on their property rights.
The House is working on its own version. Last year, the National Rifle Association's political arm blamed then-House Republican Caucus Chairman Debra Maggart, R-Hendersonville, for the bill's failure in that chamber and spent huge sums in a successful effort to defeat Maggart in her re-election effort.
Tennessee Chamber of Commerce and Industry Chairman Bill Ozier told Judiciary Committee members Tuesday that while some favorable changes were made to last year's bill, large and smaller businesses continue to have concerns.
"We have heard from several employers who note that the outcome of this legislation may well impact their decision either to locate new facilities in this state or expand existing operations," Ozier told Judiciary Committee members. "It's certainly more of a concern than you might otherwise think."
Volkswagen, which operates a plant in Chattanooga, was among companies raising concerns last year about the bill's impact on employee safety and the German company's property rights.
Chattanooga is currently competing with Volkswagen's plant in Mexico for the possible assembly of a new sport utility vehicle.
Asked later by the Chattanooga Times Free Press if Volkswagen is among companies whose decisions could be affected if the bill becomes law, Ozier said "It could be. I can't say who is and who isn't."
Volkswagen Chattanooga spokesman Guenther Scherelis did not return a telephone call.
Tennessee Firearms Association Executive Director John Harris said the legislation is necessary because the ability to carry a gun legally for self-protection going to and from work is meaningless unless they can store the weapons in their locked vehicles while at work or other places.
Freshman Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, is a member of the Judiciary Committee and voted for the bill.
Gardenhire said while businesses' concerns are "important, this is Tennessee."
The so-called "guns in parking lots" bill became the No. 1 issue he heard about from voters during his Senate campaign last year, said Gardenhire, who backed the legislation during the election. He said Volkswagen officials had not contacted him about the bill.
This year's version restricts the would-be law to handgun-carry permit holders. Ramsey says the restriction makes sense because permit holders undergo criminal background checks and mandatory gun training. The original bill would have applied to anyone lawfully possessing a firearm.
Harris said he believes there are "some errors that need to be cleared up." The bill uses the term "owned" vehicle which could leave gun owners who lease or borrow a car in trouble, he said.
"It might not apply the way they've written the bill," Harris said. "For some reason, they've decided to let state government have enforcement authority over federal restrictions. So if they make all state government property open but some federal agency has a restriction saying not in our parking lot, the way they've written the bill you could get prosecuted in state court."
Harris said in his view, the state shouldn't be spending money on prosecutions and let federal authorities press a case.
The bill would allow businesses and others to continue to post signs barring nonhandgun permit holders from storing weapons in their vehicles. But they could not stop someone with a permit.
Ramsey's bill also has provisions that largely seek to exclude lot owners from legal liability in the event there is a shooting.
Ozier said his group is working with several House members on a bill that gives "rights to handgun permit holders and also protects the employers' rights."
Still, he noted, it's difficult to change a bill that the Senate speaker makes a top priority.
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, ...