NASHVILLE - Charges are flying over a "guns-in-parking-lots" bill, with a gun-rights group calling top House GOP leaders an "axis of evil" for trying to tone down the measure.
But an 18-member coalition of business, police and higher-education organizations is firing back.
The coalition says the gun lobby's bill is a "major infringement on private property rights" that requires private or public employers to allow workers and even unauthorized people to store weapons in their locked vehicles on owners' property.
House and Senate Republican leaders are working to find middle ground. But House GOP leaders, including Majority Leader Gerald McCormick, of Chattanooga, were the ones who drew the wrath of Tennessee Firearms Association Executive Director John Harris in a legislative alert his group sent Wednesday.
"Notice that [none] of the House Leadership's 'axis of evil' in the context of the 2nd Amendment - Speaker [Beth] Harwell, [Debra] Maggart or McCormick - support this bill," Harris emailed to supporters.
"Instead, they are working to kill it in order to appease the Big Business - big money investors in House leadership," Harris continues. "Sadly for conservatives, this support is apparently based more on Chicago-style influence peddling for dollars rather than supporting bills based on conservative and constitutional principles that directly impact the citizens."
On Thursday, the coalition of businesses, police and other organizations sent a letter to all 132 state lawmakers.
"Under current law, private property owners and employers have the authority to make the rules on their own premises," the letter says. "But when it comes to guns, this legislation would take away that freedom."
Groups in the coalition - which doesn't have an official name - include the Tennessee Farm Bureau Federation, the Tennessee Chamber of Commerce, Tennessee Association of Chiefs of Police, the Tennessee Petroleum Council and the Tennessee Hospital Association.
The group calls the legislation, sponsored by Rep. Eddie Bass, D-Prospect, and Sen. Mike Faulk, R-Kingsport, a "major infringement on property rights. Supporters of this legislation argue that this enhances individual rights, but you cannot expand rights for one person by restricting the rights of another."
McCormick laughed at Harris' characterization.
"I heard he called us the 'axis of evil,'" McCormick said. "I may post that on my Facebook [page]. ... I thought that was supposed to be Iraq and Iran and North Korea. I don't think we're that much danger to the nation."
He said legislative leaders are "working on an amendment that would balance the legitimate Second Amendment rights along with property rights, which is also very important." They "may work" on language similar to that in a Georgia bill that excludes secure parking lots that are fenced or have gates, he said.
Another issue for some legislators is that the Faulk/Bass bill, which has support from the National Rifle Association, makes no reference to applying provisions only to state-issued handgun-carry permit holders, who undergo criminal background checks and training.
Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey, R-Blountville, said he backs changes that would allow only handgun-carry permit holders to keep guns in their locked vehicles. It shouldn't apply to all gun owners, he said.
"It will be a compromise that protects property rights and, at the same time, allows law-abiding, handgun-permit-carrying people to take their guns in places that seem legitimate," Ramsey said.
The Senate Judiciary Committee is scheduled to hear Faulk's bill next week. Bass' companion bill is stalled in a House subcommittee.