Tennessee senator sidelines gun-carry bill that worried businesses, continues 2nd bill opposed by law enforcement

Staff Photo by Robin Rudd / A sign on the door of Tailgate Brewery, on Market Street, prohibits weapons inside the business. The photograph was made on Monday.

NASHVILLE — A Tennessee gun-carry bill that businesses and others felt put them on their back heels is dead for the remainder of the General Assembly's 2023-24 session.

Senate Bill 1037 sought to create an exemption in the law that currently allows an individual, corporation, business entity or government to post signs prohibiting possession of weapons by anyone, including employees with a state-issued handgun permit, on their property.

The bill, sponsored by Sen. John Stevens, R-Huntingdon, an attorney, sought to remove the current misdemeanor criminal offense for possession of a weapon in a building for a person who is at a meeting conducted by or on property owned, operated, or managed or under the control of the entity.

That proved too much for members of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and Stevens this week put the bill in a general subcommittee, signaling the death of the bill.

Stevens put the bill in "general sub," meaning the measure has been sidelined.

"We have concerns with that one," Tennessee Chamber of Commerce President Bradley Jackson said Monday in a phone interview.

Jackson said that with Tennessee being an employment-at-will state, he thought employers could still tell workers that as a condition of employment someone cannot carry a firearm while working.

"Well, 1037 is general sub," Stevens said. "We listened to the business community on that. That one's gone, I'm not pushing that."

But Jackson said that doesn't deal with another bill, carried by Stevens, that Jackson described as the "biggest issue" for businesses.

It was a reference to a second Stevens bill, SB1503. It renames the state's existing enhanced and concealed-carry handgun law and allows permit holders to carry "any" firearms," including long guns, semi-automatic weapons and more.

Senate Democratic Caucus spokesman Brandon Puttbrese said by phone that the bill proved to be too much for Stevens' fellow Republicans to "stomach" by taking property rights from business owners.

Stevens said in a Tuesday interview at the state Capitol that he still has hopes for SB1503 and explained his rationale in bringing both bills.

Both, he said, are being brought in response to the U.S. Supreme Court's 2022 ruling in New York State Rifle & Pistol Association v. Bruen. A majority of justices held unconstitutional a state law requiring applicants for a concealed carry permit to show "proper cause" or need to carry.

"Bruen was really, really clear on the constitutional right protecting the right to bear arms, and the Second Amendment is a pre-existing right," Stevens said. "It's not really granted by government, it is something preserved by government. So it's part of a package recognizing that."

Stevens said Tennessee law currently is written in a way that someone is "presumed" not to be able to carry a firearm.

"So one of the things I would like to do is flip that, recognizing that you're allowed to carry because you're an American," Stevens said, adding that right can be forfeited by someone who breaks the law.

His second bill wouldn't apply to someone who is underage or "mentally deficient," he said.

"I'm really not trying to do anything radical with it," Stevens said. "It's really rewriting the statute to recognize that our statutory scheme is backwards. It presumes you're unable to carry when you really are presumed to carry."

And the senator said the legislation will incorporate Tennessee Attorney General Jonathan Skrmetti's lawsuit settlement agreement with Firearms Policy Coalition, which is still pending before a federal judge in Knoxville.

The suit involves a challenge to current state law dealing with people under age 21. The law allows 18-, 19- and 20 year-olds to qualify to carry if they are U.S. military members or veterans.

Concerns over the bill allowing people to carry semi-automatic long guns and pistols that are outfitted with extended stocks erupted in the House Civil Justice Committee, where Rep. Rusty Grills, R-Newbern, and other GOP lawmakers are pressing House Bill 1005, the lower chamber's companion bill to Stevens' bill.

Grills and Rep. Gino Bulson, a Republican and attorney from Brentwood, questioned opposition from law enforcement officials, including Tennessee Bureau of Investigation Director David Rausch, on carrying semi-automatic rifles in public.

"The courts still recognize states still have the authority, reasonable, to regulate firearms and the manner that they're carried and where they're carried and when they can be carried," Rausch said. "That is recognized continuously by the Supreme Court."

Bulso asked whether citizens have the right to carry a semi-automatic pistol, to which Rausch replied, "absolutely."

"And your position is somehow we're supposed to read the Second Amendment to provide that a citizen can carry a semi-automatic handgun in public but not a semi-automatic rifle, is that correct?" Bulso continued.

"What I'm saying is, there's a difference, yes," Rausch said.

The committee meets again Wednesday on the bill.

Contact Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com.