NASHVILLE - A years-long fight between gun-rights advocates and businesses ended in the state Senate on Monday with the overwhelming approval of a bill allowing handgun-carry permit holders to store firearms in vehicles parked almost everywhere, despite property owners or employers' wishes.
The bill, sponsored by Republican Speaker Ron Ramsey, passed on a 28-5 vote. A House subcommittee will hear the measure Wednesday.
Businesses and higher education officials have fought the bill for years with companies such as Volkswagen in Chattanooga arguing such a move would threaten safety and violate private property rights.
But Second Amendment advocates say that without the law, their ability to remain safe going to and from work or other places is meaningless. Proponents also point out that an existing law allows nonstudent adults to store firearms at schools and universities.
"Obviously, I felt this was something we needed to put behind us and move on," Ramsey said following the vote.
Ramsey said he feels "very strongly that gun-carry permit holders with their impeccable track record need to have their guns in their car wherever they go. It's proven that's a detriment to crime."
Majority Republicans quashed an amendment offered by Democrats that would have allowed the state Department of Safety to make exceptions for businesses making sound cases for excluding guns from their parking lots.
Sen. Charlotte Burks, D-Monterey, was one of the five Democrats who opposed the bill. During debate, she asked Sen. Jack Johnson, R-Franklin, who carried the bill for Ramsey, whether proponents had spoken with companies such as Volkswagen and Nissan.
"We spent millions of dollars trying to bring them here," Burks noted. "Are they OK with this bill as written?"
Johnson, who is chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, said "some are comfortable. Some are not."
But he argued the bill is "far different, far more narrow in scope" than last year's bill since it restricts its application to the 370,000 handgun permit holders, who undergo criminal background checks and a day course on gun use.
Last year's version, pushed by the National Rifle Association, allowed anyone who legally possessed a gun to store firearms in their locked vehicles on a parking lot.
This year's bill also includes provisions intended to protect employers or parking lot owners from getting sued in the event of shootings.
Sen. Thelma Harper, D-Nashville, found it disturbing the bill was again before the legislature less than two months after the massacre at a Newtown, Conn., school that left 20 children dead.
At the national level that has spurred discussion about gun control.
"The first thing we do is talk about guns," Harper said. "There has to be another way."
But Sen. Mark Green, R-Clarksville, a physician, countered that "what this bill does is it allows guns in places where they've been prohibited. The only thing that can stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun."
Last week, Tennessee Chamber of Commerce and Industry President Bill Ozier cautioned the Senate Judiciary Committee that "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. It's certainly more of a concern than you might otherwise think."
Chattanooga, where Volkswagen operates an assembly plant, is competing with Volkswagen's plant in Mexico for the possible assembly of a new sport utility vehicle.
"This is an important issue, particularly to a lot of our foreign-owned companies," Ozier said. "They're not used to the gun culture that we have in the United States, and [for] some of those, whether they're Japanese, German or whatever country they're from, this is a big issue to them."
He said he couldn't specifically say whether that included Volkswagen, but for those companies that are concerned "when they decide whether they're going to expand an existing operation or put a new operation they may look to another state that's not as gun friendly."