Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey and state Sen. Stacey Campfield are both proposing what they view as compromises in a legislative controversy over keeping guns in cars — even in the parking lots of businesses that ban weapons on their premises.
One stark difference: Ramsey’s proposal, as outlined to reporters last week, would apply only to those with a handgun carry permit. Knoxville Republican Campfield’s plan, which he calls “don’t ask, don’t tell for guns,” would apply to those who may legally possess firearms.
In the last legislative session, a bill drafted by the National Rifle Association stirred a long-running dispute between Second Amendment advocates and business lobbyists. The proposal, which failed to pass, would have declared that Tennesseans can keep guns in their locked cars, even if the vehicle is parked on property where the owner prohibits guns.
Ramsey said he is drafting legislation — with an intent to push for passage early in the 2013 legislative session — that would allow handgun permit holders to keep their guns in cars at all times and in all places. But in “a secured area” where a business prohibits guns, the permit holder employee would have to provide a letter to his or her employer stating that “there may be a gun in the car,” Ramsey said.
If the employee with a carry permit provides such a letter, he or she could not be penalized for having a gun on the premises. Ramsey said this is a compromise between the rights of citizens to have guns and the property rights of businesses.
The proposal is founded on a belief that permit holders, by going through a criminal-background check and required training, have proved themselves responsible, Ramsey said. And many are already keeping guns in their cars, despite being in violation of the law, he said.
“Let’s be honest. It’s going on now. This is to make those people legal,” Ramsey said.
The Senate speaker, however, did retreat from previous statements saying that there were “zero” incidents of handgun permit holders being involved in violent crimes. The Violence Policy Center lists 11 cases of Tennessee handgun permit holders involved in a total of 13 shooting deaths among 499 such cases nationally.
Ramsey said there may be “isolated” cases of permit holders killing others in Tennessee, but said the numbers are “minuscule” in comparison to the general population.
There are about 375,000 permit holders statewide, according to the state Department of Safety.
Campfield’s proposal, as explained by the senator in an interview and a blog post, would allow private businesses to ban guns on their property, but prohibit businesses from searching employee vehicles for the sole purpose of checking for guns — the “don’t ask, don’t tell” provision.
If the vehicle is searched for some other reason — suspicion of theft, for example — and a gun turns up, the company could fire the employee but the employee would be entitled to unemployment benefits under state law, just as if he or she had been laid off for economic reasons, Campfield said.
Further, the draft Campfield proposal would declare that possession of a firearm inside a locked vehicle would not be a crime under Tennessee law, so long as the individual was otherwise entitled to legally possess a gun, the senator said.
Campfield said that current Tennessee law, despite some beliefs to the contrary, already allows guns on university and college campuses — if locked inside a car. Gov. Bill Haslam recently got some attention by saying that campuses should be exempt from any law allowing firearms on employer premises.
The statute cited by Campfield generally prohibits weapons on school grounds. But it also says “it is not an offense under this subsection” for adults who are not students at the school to possess a gun if the firearm is “contained within a private vehicle operated by the adult.”
Campfield said he is open to compromise on some provisions of his proposal, but disagrees with Ramsey limiting the broader freedom for keeping a gun in a car to handgun permit holders.
Cars, he said, should be treated as homes insofar as gun possession is allowed under state law.
“I don’t see why we should have a lower standard for one group. Cars are the same as someone’s property,” he said.
Both Ramsey and Campfield said they are open to some revision of their proposals, including a provision that would provide lawsuit protection to employers who authorize guns on their premises.
A Vanderbilt University poll released last week included a question on the issue.
Fifty-three percent of those responding said they believe employers should be required by the state to allow employees to keep guns in their vehicles. The question did not mention handgun permits. The poll found 65 percent of respondents identifying themselves as Republicans supported that proposition versus 34 percent of Democrats. Those declaring themselves Independents were 59 percent in favor.