published Friday, December 27th, 2013

Tennessee lawmakers cool to gun law changes

The Tennessee State Capitol in downtown Nashville.
The Tennessee State Capitol in downtown Nashville.
Photo by The Tennessean /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

NASHVILLE — A Tennessee gun-rights group is firing at top Republican leaders for displaying insufficient enthusiasm for major changes to the "guns in parking lots" law enacted earlier this year.

Tennessee Firearms Association Executive Director John Harris, in a recent letter to members, called it "shameful" that "the Republican establishment leadership plans to continue ignoring the constitutionally protected rights of law-abiding gun owners, including the right to defend themselves and their families against criminals."

House Speaker Beth Harwell, R-Nashville, and Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey, R-Blountville, said earlier this month they did not intend to take the lead in revisiting the Safe Commute Act, although they expect the issue to emerge.

The law allows Tennesseans with handgun-carry permits to keep firearms in their locked vehicles on most public and private parking lots. It was supposed to resolve a yearslong fight between gun-rights advocates, who said they need protection from employers' anti-gun prohibitions, and business groups, who argued such a law would violate their property rights.

But in a legal opinion issued last spring, Tennessee Attorney General Robert Cooper said the law could not block employers from firing workers who violate company prohibitions against bringing firearms to work.

Tennessee has long been an "at-will" state, meaning that employers can fire workers for any reason or no stated reason at all. The House sponsor, Rep. Jeremy Faison, R-Cosby, acknowledged during legislative debate that employers would still be able to fire workers without stating a reason. The law only exempts permit holders from criminal penalties for having firearms locked up out of sight in their vehicles, he said at the time.

Ramsey, who disagrees with Cooper's opinion, told reporters recently that a bill to address the issue will "probably" come up in the legislative session that begins Jan. 14.

"But it won't be mine," said Ramsey, who sponsored the 2013 law. "You can't keep it [bill introduction] from happening, but I'm through. I think we passed a good bill; I'm happy with it. But apparently the attorney general wasn't."

Speaking with reporters last week, Harwell didn't rule out revisiting the issue but raised the specter of harm to the state's at-will employment laws.

"I believe there is some movement among individual legislators to look at [whether we can] make some changes to what passed last year," Harwell said. "We want to be supportive of Tennesseans' right to own and bear arms."

But that has to be balanced with business owners' right to hire and fire at will, she said.

"We'll try to balance that as we always try to do."

House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga, said Thursday he's awaiting developments.

"Unless we get somebody who's been fired, I don't know that it's necessary to take action on it. If one of these big employers does fire somebody as a result, I think we would pass legislation very quickly, and should if that were to happen."

In his email, Harris said the "cold shoulder given to conservative grass-roots groups, including TFA, shows a lack of constitutional leadership by those in power and is simply unacceptable."

He criticized Harwell, saying observers "may conclude [she] is taking her anti-gun marching orders from Gov. Haslam," who as Knoxville mayor was a member of Mayors Against Guns, an organization run by former New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg.

He said Haslam changed positions when he decided to run for governor. "[H]e suddenly joined the NRA, apparently thinking that was all he needed to do to make Tennesseans think that he had become a supporter of their constitutionally protected rights."

Harris also lashed out at Ramsey, saying, "obviously the sabotage to last year's safe commute bill under the direction of Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey needs to be repaired."

Contact staff writer Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com or 615-255-0550.

about Andy Sher...

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, ...

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