published Friday, January 4th, 2013

Tennessee GOP explores deal on guns bill

The Tennessee State Capitol in downtown Nashville.
The Tennessee State Capitol in downtown Nashville.
Photo by The Tennessean /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

NASHVILLE — House Republicans are exploring what they hope can provide a compromise in the ongoing fight between businesses and gun-rights groups over restricting employers from banning guns in vehicles parked on their property.

One idea, offered by Sen. Stacey Campfield, R-Knoxville, would still let businesses ban guns from vehicles on their property. But it prohibits them from searching employee vehicles for the sole purpose of checking for guns.

"I call it the 'don't ask, don't tell for guns,'" Campfield said Thursday. "That's pretty much what it does. Everybody gets what they want out of it. Businesses can post [against guns] on their property. But you can't make searching of someone's vehicle for a gun a condition of employment."

But cars and trucks could still be searched in cases of suspected theft of company property, Campfield said.

House members are interested in the proposal because, they say, it would still allow businesses to fire anyone who violates their anti-gun policy if found to have a firearm in their vehicle. But at the same time, employees could not be charged with a crime.

A task force appointed by House Speaker Beth Harwell, R-Nashville, has been quietly meeting for weeks with interested parties to resolve the bitter two-year battle in which GOP lawmakers have been caught between gun advocates and businesses.

Businesses, including Volks-wagen in Chattanooga, argue that eliminating their ability to ban guns in vehicles on their property poses potential dangers and also violates their private property rights.

Guns advocacy groups, including the National Rifle Association, say employees should have the right to travel to and from work safely.

Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, the Republican Senate speaker, has offered his own compromise. It allows anyone with a state-issued handgun carry permit to store weapons in locked vehicles on owners' parking lots.

Under current state law, Tennesseans seeking a carry permit must undergo a criminal background check and have some firearms training. The state has an estimated 375,000 handgun-carry permit holders.

Campfield's proposal applies to anyone who can lawfully possess a gun.

Harwell's task force met behind closed doors earlier on Thursday where various options were discussed with interested parties. House Commerce Committee Chairman Steve McManus, R-Cordova, an advocate for business, and Rep. Judd Matheny, R-Tullahoma, who has pressed on behalf of gun advocates, are hosting discussions.

NRA's lobbyist has not attended the meetings, McManus said.

He said "everybody appreciates the opt out" provision in Campfield's bill, which was first discussed several weeks ago.

McManus doesn't see the proposal as necessarily broadening people's ability to go armed at a time when there is a national discussion about guns in the wake of last month's massacre of 20 first-graders at a Connecticut elementary school.

"Again, the premise of what I understand the bill we're discussing is, we can restrict it. ... We're giving any corporation the right to opt out," McManus said. "In other words you cannot carry a gun on these premises. That's not necessarily broadening it by any stretch."

Asked later if Campfield's bill can be the basis for a compromise, Harwell said, "I don't know the answer to that. Sen. Campfield talked to me about his legislation. I thought he had some interesting proposals included, and I asked a few of my members to kind of take a look at it and see what may be palatable to our membership."

She said there are "parts of it I like and parts that I don't." She said she appreciates Campfield's attempt to "balance individual ownership of land rights versus the Second Amendment right to own and possess a gun. And I think he's coming toward that ground, which is what we've attempted to do all along."

At this point, she said, "nobody knows what that bill's going to look like."

about Andy Sher...

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, ...

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