NASHVILLE — The dispute over controversial guns-in-parking-lots legislation turned into a running, daylong firefight in the Legislature on Tuesday, starting with the Tennessee Firearms Association chief's call for the political crucifixion of a top Republican who opposes the measures.
The remarks drew angry denunciations from other Republicans, including House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga, who described Firearms Association Executive Director John Harris' behavior as "bizarre."
Later in the day, the Republican-controlled House Calendar and Rules Committee met in a sometimes-raucous session and voted to ship the measures off for summer study.
But whether that kills the bills, one of which strips employers of their ability to ban employees with handgun-carry permits from storing weapons in their locked vehicles, remains to be seen.
National Rifle Association lobbyist Darren LaSorte later told reporters that gun-rights advocates will try to resurrect the bills on the House floor and warned that Republican opponents face political retribution in upcoming elections.
Earlier in the day, Harris attacked House Republican Caucus Chairman Debra Maggart of Hendersonville in an email alert sent to Firearms Association members. He accused her of keeping the gun bills from coming to the floor.
"Rep. Debra Maggart's political career needs to end much as the Romans crucified criminals -- not just to end her tenure but as a glaring example to other Republicans that you cannot take the grass-roots groups or the rights of citizens for granted and then put your hand out to Big Business for their support all the while expecting to be re-elected," he wrote.
"Symbolicly [sic], it is time to display a used crucifix at the entrance to the General Assembly as a warning," Harris added.
Noting that she and Harris attended the same Christian high school, Maggart said founders of the school "would be appalled that he used the word crucifixion in that manner."
The bill has prompted a major battle between gun-rights proponents, including the National Rifle Association, which say the bill protects workers driving to and from work, and major companies, which say it violates their private property rights.
Maggart said there are a "lot of good members" who belong to the Tennessee Firearms Association and National Rifle Association, which also is pushing for floor votes on the legislation.
"The lobbyists that been employed by the NRA and the TFA have tried to use fear and intimidation and bully tactics to get their way, and that's unfortunate," Maggart said. "I think it demeans the Legislature."
Hours later, the House Calendar Committee voted 15-8 to send the measures, sponsored by Democratic Rep. Eddie Bass, of Prospect, to a study committee that would commence work after the Legislature adjourns for the year.
Chairman Bill Dunn, R-Knoxville, defended the move, saying the Senate companion bill is going nowhere. Efforts to suspend Senate rules Tuesday night and bring the bill directly to the floor failed.
Republican Gov. Bill Haslam, who opposes the current legislation, called the Senate action "significant." But, the governor acknowledged, "who knows?" what will happen. "I mean, again three or four days or a week left, who knows what will happen?"
LaSorte later complained that the NRA and other advocates are facing "50 full-time" business lobbyists who oppose the bills. He also said it's clear GOP leadership in both the House and Senate oppose the bill.
Saying the legislation "is not dead" despite the House panel's vote, LaSort said the NRA continues to push for floor votes.
Asked about Harris' email, LaSorte said he had not seen it. While the NRA and TFA have "similar goals," Harris said, "they have a different approach."
Meanwhile, the NRA is using robocalls featuring the NRA's Institute of Legislative Action Executive Director Chris Cox urging handgun-carry permit holders to call legislative leaders.
"As a seventh-generation Tennessean I've been very disappointed by the attempts of Speaker Beth Harwell, Lt. Gov Ron Ramsey, Gov. Bill Haslam and other Republican legislative leaders to kill the Safe Commute Act," Cox says.
Andy Sher is a Nashville-based staff writer covering Tennessee state government and politics for the Times Free Press. A Washington correspondent from 1999-2005 for the Times Free Press, Andy previously headed up state Capitol coverage for The Chattanooga Times, worked as a state Capitol reporter for The Nashville Banner and was a contributor to The Tennessee Journal, among other publications. Andy worked for 17 years at The Chattanooga Times covering police, health care, county government, ...