By Erik Schelzig, Associated Press
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Leaders in the Tennessee Statehouse are hoping for what they call a reasonable solution to a legislative fight over a bill seeking to guarantee employees the right to store firearms in cars parked at work.
But not everyone is convinced that cooler heads will prevail over the issue that has Republicans torn between their loyalties to gun rights advocates and the business community.
The Tennessee Chamber of Commerce and Industry “doesn’t have any hope” that there will be an obvious way to bridge competing interests between gun and property rights advocates, said Bill Ozier, the group’s chairman.
“We’re preparing for the fight again,” he said. “We’re not very optimistic.”
The measure introduced this spring would have allowed anyone to store a firearm in their vehicle at work. The proposal was later whittled down to apply to the state’s 376,000 handgun carry permit holders. But large employers like FedEx and Volkswagen balked at giving up control over whether guns were kept in their lots.
The failure of the proposal led to angry recriminations between largely pro-gun GOP leaders and the National Rifle Association, which later bankrolled a successful attempt to defeat a top House leader in the August primary.
That experience left bitter feelings with several lawmakers like Frank Niceley, a Strawberry Plains Republican who moved from the House to the Senate in this month’s elections. Niceley said he’s hesitant to go along with Republican Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey’s call to quickly pass a compromise on the gun bill and move on to other issues.
“If we allow them to come in here and pass a bill right off the bat, we’re telling the other lobbyists the way to get things done is through fear and intimidation,” he said.
Niceley said he would allow employees to store weapons in their cars if he owned a factory, but that such decisions should be left to each business.
“If a property owner tells someone you can’t bring a yo-yo on your property –much less a gun — you can’t bring it on that property,” he said.
Messages seeking comment from the NRA were not returned this week.
Ramsey, who runs a Blountville auction and real estate business, said a solution is going to come down to the two sides recognizing that a bill is likely to pass, and that both will need to live with results. For that to happen, Ramsey said, it will come down to “the NRA to realize that you’re not going to get everything you want, so just accept that and move forward.”
House Speaker Beth Harwell, R-Nashville, said the guns bill has never been a top priority in the lower chamber and that her colleagues are more interested in pursuing measures seeking to improve the business climate and jobs creation. Still, she said, a compromise shouldn’t be unattainable.
“I think reasonable gun owners are willing to respect both the right to own a gun and the right of private property owners,” she said.
Republican Gov. Bill Haslam said he struck a conciliatory tone when he met with NRA leaders at a Republican Governors Association meeting in Las Vegas last week.
“They were saying we’d like to sit down and have a reasonable conversation,” he said. “I hope that’s true.”