Two minor guns bills advance in Legislature; all others delayed until mid-March

Senators shot down an attempt to protect handgun permit holders from dismissal by their employers Wednesday, then approved two minor gun bills while all other pending firearms legislation was put on hold until next month.

By delaying action on any other gun bills pending special March committee meetings, the prospects for passage could be dimmed for any new firearms legislation beyond the two bills making relatively minor changes to the so-called “guns in parking lots” law enacted last year.

Both of those bills were brought to the Senate floor Wednesday. Each makes an adjustment to the 2012 law that generally declares handgun permit holders cannot be criminally prosecuted for having their weapons in a locked personal vehicle, even if the owner of the parking lot prohibits guns on the premises
One of the bills (SB1701) changes the law to cover any vehicle – not just one personally owned by the permit holder. Sponsor Sen. Mark Green, R-Clarksville, said the language in current law was simply an oversight and the change will mean a vehicle borrowed or rented by the permit holder is included.

The other bill (SB1700), also sponsored by Green, modifies language in the current law saying that the gun must be kept out of sight in the parked car. As now written, Green said the provision could be construed to mean that “incidental exposure” by a permit holder putting a gun out of sight – making it briefly visible to a passer-by – could be prosecuted.

Both bills have moved through committees without opposition. But on the Senate floor Wednesday, Sen. Mae Beavers – with support from the Tennessee Firearms Association – produced amendments to completely rewrite provisions of the 2013 “guns in parking lots” law. A central provision would prohibit employers from firing, demoting or otherwise penalizing a handgun permit holder for having a gun locked in a car, even if that violates company policy.
The move by Beavers, R-Mount Juliet, prompted considerable debate.

“The legislation before you does not go far enough,” said Beavers. “It does nothing to protect emloyees from being fired merely fore leaving a legally-protected firearm in a legally-protected car.”

She said adoption of the amendment to either bill – identical amendments were proposed for both – would remove “uncertainty and vagueness” that now exists. The state attorney general says a permit holder can be fired under the 2013 law, though a memo by the Legislature’s legal staff disagrees.

But Green and others, including Sen. Janice Bowling, R-Tullahoma, contended Beavers’ amendments could endanger the non-controversial changes that all agree are appropriate. Bowling said adopting the amendments could “sacrifice the good in trying for the perfect.”

On one bill, opponents managed to avoid a roll call vote in killing Beavers’ amendment. On the other (SB1701), the vote was 23-8 to kill Beavers’ amendment. The only senators voting with her to keep it alive were Sens. Stacey Campfield, R-Knoxville; Ophelia Ford, D-Memphis; Joey Hensley, R-Hohenwald; Jack Johnson, R-Franklin; Jim Kyle, D-Memphis, Mark Norris, R-Collierville; and Jim Tracy, R-Shelbyville.

After the amendments were killed, the bills both passed unanimously by the Senate. In the House, meanwhile, both bills were unanimously approved – without consideration of any amendments – by the House Civil Justice Committee and sent on toward likely approval in House floor votes.

But that will apparently stop all consideration of gun legislation until mid March – including a bill already approved in the Senate that would allow handgun permit holders to take their weapons into city and county parks, even if local government ordinances prohibit guns in parks.

That measure (SB1496) had been scheduled for a vote Wednesday in the House Civil Justice Subcommittee. Instead, the panel’s chairman, Rep. Jim Coley, R-Memphis, announced that it and all other measures dealing with guns would be considered at as a special “firearms calendar” later in the session. He estimated that would occur in the second or third week of March.

In the Senate, a similar March meeting of the Senate Judiciary Committee will be held to consider all remaining gun bills, according to the panel’s chairman, Sen. Brian Kelsey, R-Germantown.

The move comes with legislative leaders pushing to end the 2014 session in early to mid April.

Kelsey said there had been a “deluge” of gun bills filed recently – the filing deadline for all bills was Wednesday – and he wants all considered at the same meeting “to ensure that we don’t get conflicting bills.” No date for the guns meeting has been set, but Kelsey said it would also likely be in mid-March.

Coley said one hearing on all the gun bills would “let us have all the controversy at once.”

Legislative leaders have said they hope to end the legislative session this year earlier than last year, when adjournment came on April 20. Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey said he thinks an April 9 end is possible.