NRA pressures Tennessee GOP on guns law

photo The Tennessee Capitol
Arkansas-Tennessee Live Blog

NASHVILLE -- The National Rifle Association wants Tennessee legislative candidates to declare whether they will back Republican leaders or the NRA next year if that's what it takes to put a controversial guns-in-parking lots bill up for a full vote.

In a gun-issues survey sent to Republican and Democratic candidates, the NRA devotes two of 27 questions to the Safe Commute Act, which cleared most committees but never came up for House and Senate floor votes this year.

The NRA-backed bill, as amended, sought to block public and private employers' ability to bar workers, customers and most visitors from keeping firearms in locked vehicles on company property, provided the weapons are stored out of sight.

The survey asks candidates if they would support the bill and blames Republican leaders for blocking full House and Senate votes this year.

"As a legislator, would you follow the demands of party leadership even if they run contrary to the NRA's legislative agenda?" the survey asks.

In an interview, NRA spokesman Andrew Arulandandam called the survey question "pretty straightforward and self-explanatory."

"At the NRA we're not shy. We don't mince words," he said.

The Safe Commute Act "preserves the right for hardworking men and women to defend themselves at daily commutes," Arulandandam said.

"Not everybody works the first shift. There are people who work odd hours, late hours," he said.

The NRA survey is a challenge to Republican legislative leaders and Republican Gov. Bill Haslam, who said the NRA's legislation went too far.

House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga, said the survey question "sounds like they were asking, 'Will you do what we tell you to do instead of sticking by leadership?'"

Businesses, including Volkswagen in Chattanooga, and universities said the bill violated their private property rights and interfered with security efforts. It also would have affected K-12 schools and day care centers, critics said.

The NRA and the Tennessee Firearms Association countered that vehicle owners have rights, too.

Even what gun-rights advocates portrayed as a major concession -- restricting the bill's application to people with handgun permits, rather than everyone who lawfully owned a gun -- wasn't enough.

The bill died in the House Calendar and Rules Committee, whose mostly Republican members are appointed by Republican House Speaker Beth Harwell.

Senate Democrats were delighted that Republicans got caught in the crossfire between two of the GOP's staunchest supporters -- business and gun-rights advocates.

Ordinarily a champion of gun rights, Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, the Republican Senate speaker, said during and after the session the NRA wouldn't compromise to restrict the bill's application.

Neither Ramsey nor Harwell responded to an interview request last week.

McCormick said he thought lawmakers should have been focusing on jobs during the session.

But as the bill moved and efforts to find a compromise fizzled, McCormick said the Republican Caucus had to decide whether to suspend House rules and hold a floor vote.

The "overwhelming majority" feeling of the caucus "was not to do that bill," McCormick said.

When Democrats controlled the General Assembly, the NRA routinely criticized leadership for bottling up gun bills.

This election cycle, Democrats aren't shedding any tears for the GOP chieftains.

"It's the residue of the Republicans promising the moon [while in the minority], knowing they couldn't deliver anything" Senate Democratic Leader Jim Kyle of Memphis said. "And now that they're piloting the space shuttle, it's different."

Switching metaphors, Kyle said, "It's the chickens coming home to roost."