Only a couple of months after the Newtown, Conn., shootings as the rest of America debates restrictions on firearms and ammunition, the legislature now has adopted a major new expansion of gun rights in Tennessee.
“Today we’re telling businesses they must allow guns on their property, and the question is, what will we do next?” House Democratic leader Craig Fitzhugh asked. Rep. Johnnie Turner, D-Memphis, wondered if "God forbid, guns in churches" is on the NRA's to-do list.
It’s a big victory for the NRA, which has demanded this so-called safe commute law for years. It lets the state’s nearly 400,000 handgun carry permit owners keep weapons in their vehicles in parking lots at work or school or anywhere else they please.
The Tennessee Chamber of Commerce & Industry and big employers—such as Volkswagen, FedEx and the University of Tennessee—always have managed to beat it back in the past, citing security issues and claiming the right to control their own properties.
But the political calculus changed dramatically last year when the NRA almost singlehandedly ousted the House’s third-ranking Republican, Hendersonville’s Debra Maggart, in her party primary. This session, fearing the NRA might target them next, Republican leaders did an about-face and rammed this bill through the legislature as quickly as possible—the better to avoid public embarrassment. The bill sailed out of a House subcommittee in six minutes. Gov. Bill Haslam was against the bill last year but knuckled under to the inevitable this session, and he hasn't said much about it. He’ll either sign it into law or let it become law without his signature.
Republican leaders called a caucus meeting before this morning’s session to make sure lawmakers were with the program. Their basic message? Let’s do this fast before voters wake up and realize just how contemptible we are. Reporters, including Pith informant Andrea Zelinski, were allowed into the meeting and happily tweeted away as Speaker Beth Harwell made her case for minimizing media coverage and political fallout.
"The less you say the better. … Just stay quiet, vote your conscience," Harwell told Republicans.
She added: "The business community to a large extent is holding their nose and accepting the fact that we are where we are." Translation: Businesses realize we are like cornered animals and we will do whatever we have to do to keep our seats in the legislature.
Republican leader Gerald McCormick wouldn’t debate the merits of the Democratic amendments, instead arguing they circumvented the House committee system and might “mess things up really bad.”
“We cannot turn every bill into a committee hearing of 99 people,” McCormick said. “If we do that there’s no reason to have a committee system at all. We could just march to the floor every Monday night and debate every bill and make amendments and change it. What would happen then is that it wouldn’t get vetted and we’d make mistakes.”
Democrats pointed out handgun carry permit holders have killed at least 16 people in Tennessee in five years, including four in parking lots. But the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Jeremy Faison, R-Cosby, called permit owners “law-abiding citizens who have proved their worth to carry a gun.”
“The least we can do is allow them to keep this gun locked in their car as they go to work and carry on their daily lives in Tennessee,” he said.
On Twitter, Maggart scoffed from the sidelines: “The sponsor (Faison) says private property and right to bear arms two greatest rights. But not last year!”
Update: Rep. Curry Todd is missing in action. From the AP:
Democrats cited statistics gathered by The Associated Press this week that more than 2,000 people have had their carry permits revoked or suspended over the past two calendar years for charges ranging from drug dealing to murder.
Republican Rep. Curry Todd of Collierville is among those who have had permits suspended after pleading guilty last month to drunken driving and gun charges.
Todd, who is best known for sponsoring a 2010 law that allows people with handgun carry permits to be armed in bars and restaurants that serve alcohol, was excused from the floor session before Thursday's vote.