The final reference on the floor of the state legislature to one of the most contentious issues of the session was met with bipartisan support.
Less than an hour before the General Assembly adjourned for the year, Rep. Eddie Bass (D-Prospect) rose and faked a motion to call up the so-called guns-in-parking-lots legislation.
He had sponsored two related bills on the matter. One prohibited businesses from banning the storage of firearms by employees in their cars parked on company lots. The other established protections against workplace discrimination for employees based on their ownership, storage or transportation of a firearm. Until the legislature’s final day, the fate of both bills was not completely certain.
“Madam Speaker,” he deadpanned, with a sheet of paper in his hand. “I move to suspend the necessary rules for the immediate consideration ... oh, wait a minute, that’s the wrong one.”
The members burst into laughter and applauded.
There was likely relief in the laughter, at least for the leadership of both parties. The state’s top Republicans had exerted plenty of energy in an ultimately successful effort to keep the issue from getting to the floor of either chamber. Knowing that, and hoping to foster Republican infighting, leading Democrats had tried to force a floor vote on legislation they had no intention of supporting.
For the state’s gun lobby, however, which spent the session aggressively working the issue, things did not end on a cheerful note. They left the Hill feeling stiffed.
As a Democrat, Bass was an outsider in the middle of the crossfire between two powerful Republican constituencies — the pro-gun lobby and business interests that opposed the legislation — battling over the intersection of Second Amendment rights and private property rights. To complicate matters, both sides claimed to be strong supporters of the former and cited the latter as a trump card.
The significant influence of both groups caught Republicans in a philosophical and political dilemma. In the end, they sided with the corporations, as well as some of the state’s major universities, which also opposed the bills. The perceived slight has put Republicans’ relationship with guns-rights activists on an awkward footing heading toward election season.
But even that relationship is a political love triangle, as it were, gone awry.
The Tennessee Firearms Association, perhaps the most prominent gun-rights organization in the state, and its executive director John Harris were a consistently boisterous voice throughout the session. In frequent press releases, Harris lobbed rhetorical grenades at GOP leadership, at one point calling them an “axis of evil” and accusing them of appeasing “the Golden Goose of corporate money.”
Increasingly irritated lawmakers eventually cut Harris and the TFA out of negotiations. House Speaker Beth Harwell said at the time that as far as she knew, the National Rifle Association spoke for Second Amendment rights in the state, and that Republicans were in ongoing discussions with them.
Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, who received the TFA’s endorsement for governor in 2010 and an A-plus rating from the NRA in 2008, called himself “as big of a Second Amendment rights person that’s ever lived,” but said an amendment to the bill that applied it to licensed hunters went “too far.” After what seemed like biweekly releases from Harris attacking him and others, Ramsey made it clear he wasn’t listening to him, asking reporters, in jest, to remind him who Harris was.
The verbal volley culminated with Harris’ call, in an email to TFA members, for the political crucifixion of House Republican Caucus Chair Debra Maggart and the display of a “used crucifix” in front of the Capitol, as a warning to legislators.
NRA lobbyist Darren LaSorte distanced his association from those comments, saying the two groups shared similar end goals, but the TFA had “a different approach to their activism” than the NRA. Still, he said the GOP leadership’s effort to squash the bills would not be lost on the association or its members.
Gov. Bill Haslam is familiar with the pressure such groups can apply. During the 2010 gubernatorial campaign he held a town hall meeting with TFA members. Facing a barrage of questions on his feelings about repealing the state’s handgun carry permit laws, he finally said that he didn’t believe such
a proposal would pass the legislature, but that he would sign it if it did.
In the session’s final week, Haslam said Harris’ crucifixion comments, and the uproar from the gun lobby in general, seemed curious to many in Tennessee. (A state where, as House Democratic Chairman Mike Turner put it, “a guy’s got more right to carry a gun today than he did in the Wild, Wild West”)
“I was real disappointed in the language that was used there, and particularly, quite frankly, about Rep. Maggart,” Haslam said. “It’s hard to say she’s someone who’s soft on Second Amendment rights, if you know Debra. I think if you look to, whether it be the NRA or the [TFA], I think they’d be hard pressed to find people who have been more helpful to them than Republicans have in the past.”
In February, the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence released its annual scorecard ranking the strength of each state’s gun laws on a scale from 0 to 100. Tennessee scored an 8. (In a country with the highest rate of civilian gun ownership in the world, only six states scored 50 or better. The top scorer was California, at 81)
On the Internet, pro-gun sites can be seen using the Brady rankings in reverse, praising the states with the lowest scores as those most welcoming to gun owners. By that measure, Tennessee would seem to be a friend of the gun lobby (though 28 states had lower scores).
In the final days of the session, a letter signed by LaSorte and emblazoned with the logo of the NRA’s legislative arm was circulating in the House. It urged legislators to support any motion to call up the stalled bills and decried attempts to lump in the NRA’s efforts with the TFA’s rhetoric and dismiss “the unified voice of thousands of Tennesseans.”
Speaking to a crowd of reporters after what turned out to be the bills’ last stand in the House’s calendar committee, LaSorte said, “We are not being treated fairly in this process. Our members want to know that, and they want to take that into account when they decide to elect their representatives or senators.” He added: “And yes, we will take this strongly into account, the way we’re being treated this time around by Republican leadership in both houses and the governor.”