Tennessee: Businesses outgun NRA in showdown

Tennessee: Businesses outgun NRA in showdown

April 9th, 2009 by Andy Sher in Local Regional News

NASHVILLE - Tennessee businesses emerged the victor Wednesday in a legislative showdown with the National Rifle Association and other gun advocates over property rights and gun rights.

House Criminal Practice and Procedures Subcommittee members shuttled off for summer study an NRA-backed bill. It sought to prohibit employers from preventing employees with state handgun-carry permits from storing their weapons in their vehicles on company parking lots.

But later in the day, Senate Judiciary Committee members loosened two major restrictions on another bill that would allow permit holders to bring their weapons into establishments selling alcohol. It now lets permit holders bring their handguns into bars and nightclubs.

Earlier, opponents ranging from the Tennessee Chamber of Commerce & Industry to package-delivery giant FedEx Corp. squared off against the NRA and the Tennessee Firearms Association, which are pushing a raft of bills this year expanding places where permit holders can bring their firearms.

"At FedEx Corp., we're opposed to this kind of legislation," said FedEx lobbyist William Primeaux, who noted it was vital for the transportation giant to provide a safe environment for employees, customers and vendors at its work sites.

Mr. Primeaux recalled a 1994 episode in which a disgruntled FedEx worker hijacked a company plane and severely beat the pilots. He also cited a recent killing in Memphis, in which an angry SUV driver with a handgun carry permit allegedly gunned down another man in front of his children during a dispute over parking outside a restaurant.

But Memphian Sam Cooper, who identified himself as a 29-year FedEx veteran, urged lawmakers to approve the legislation, describing his apprehensiveness traveling back and forth to work at Memphis International Airport.

"A lot of us don't have the luxury of avoiding high-crime areas," Mr. Cooper said, noting that while businesses were arguing the bill would "usurp" their rights, inaction "usurps my right" to carry his handgun and protect himself.

NRA lobbyist Heidi Keesling said 10 states have passed laws prohibiting employers from stopping employees' ability to store their weapons in vehicles parking on company lots. Others such as Tennessee and Alabama are considering it, she said.

Employers argued they would be held legally liable for incidents on their property, and business property rights are essential to Tennessee's reputation as a business-friendly state.

Rep. Eric Watson, R-Cleveland, chairman of the subcommittee, worried that businesses could get sued and have to fight off even spurious claims in court.

"I think there are issues to study with this," he said.

The Senate restaurant bill, meanwhile, now is at odds with a House-passed bill expanding permit holders' ability to carry loaded weapons in establishments selling beer, wine and liquor.

The House bill prohibits permit holders from bringing their firearms into age-restricted venues as defined by the state's anti-smoking law and also requires permit holders to leave or store their weapons in their vehicles by 11 p.m.

The stated purpose of the House restrictions was to avoid having a "guns in bars" bill, said Tennessee Hospitality Association lobbyist Dan Haskell, whose group opposes the bill.

But Sen. Dewayne Bunch, R-Cleveland, called the restrictions "problematic" and appeared puzzled by the tie-in to the anti-smoking bill, which allows smoking to occur in places where no one under 21 is allowed.

Sen. Bunch also is the sponsor of the Senate version of the bill requiring businesses to let employees store their guns in vehicles on company parking lots.

The Senate sponsor of the restaurant bill, Sen. Doug Jackson, D-Dickson, said he did not object to stripping the provisions out. He noted the bill still prohibits handgun permit holders from consuming alcohol while carrying their weapons and also allows business to post signs banning guns.