By Eric Schelzig, Associated Press
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — When more than 70,000 gun enthusiasts descend on Nashville for the National Rifle Association’s annual meeting this week, they won’t be hearing from one prominent Tennessean: Republican Gov. Bill Haslam.
NRA spokeswoman Jennifer Baker commended the governor’s office for helping bring the convention to Tennessee. But she said the NRA was unable to accommodate a speaking role for Haslam at the Friday opening of the event that will feature several potential Republican presidential candidates.
“It is a very lengthy program, and we’re trying to accommodate the 2016 candidates,” she said. “So unfortunately there wasn’t time to include everyone.”
The speakers Friday include U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker.
Also welcoming the NRA at the meeting is Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker, who has announced he is not running for president.
Haslam has had a strained relationship with some gun rights advocates ever since he ran for his first term as governor in 2010. In that race, his GOP rivals criticized Haslam, who was then the mayor of Knoxville, for his failure to join the NRA until after he became a candidate, and for his past membership in Mayors Against Illegal Guns, a group co-founded by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
Haslam as mayor also presided over a 2009 city council vote that kept in place a ban on handguns in some of the city’s parks. That issue has come to a head again this year, as state lawmakers have moved to do away with local government control over whether handgun carry permit holders can be armed in parks, playgrounds and ball fields.
Both chambers of the state Legislature recently passed versions of a bill to remove the local option, but the measure has been complicated by an amendment adopted in the Senate that would also allow permit holders to be armed within the Capitol complex.
The House is scheduled to vote Monday on whether to go along with that change, though Republican leaders in the lower chamber have expressed a desire to strip off that amendment.
House Speaker Beth Harwell, R-Nashville, said addition of the Capitol to bill was encouraged by Democrats to make it more likely for Haslam to veto.
“Obviously it was not offered in a constructive fashion,” she said.
The flap over the Capitol guns amendment has thrown the timing of the guns-in-parks bill into question. Sponsors had hoped to enact the measure before the NRA came to town.
Haslam told reporters last month that the meeting of the powerful gun lobby should not dictate the state’s agenda.
“I don’t think long-term policy should ever be driven by a short-term need,” he said. “People should decide, is this good policy for the state or not?”