With Tennessee Republicans now enjoying the second year of their ascendency, gleeful business leaders expected to spend this legislative session pushing through changes in state law to make their lives easier and less expensive. Among other pro-business goals, they hoped to stamp out living-wage laws once and for all and to make it harder for laid-off workers to collect unemployment checks.
Instead, they’ve been forced unexpectedly into a prolonged fight to fend off the latest attempt to expand Second Amendment rights in Tennessee — legislation to let employees tote any legally possessed firearm into their company parking lots and then leave the guns locked in their cars during their workday. Businesses say the bill tramples their private property rights and threatens the safety of all their employees.
“Now this seems to be at the top of their list, as opposed to fighting labor unions, living wage, fighting workers compensation issues,” Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey mused at one of his press availabilities this month.
A who’s who of the Tennessee business world has paraded to the Capitol to try to persuade lawmakers to buck the National Rifle Association, which is demanding passage of what’s become known as the guns-in-parking-lots bill. It’s put legislators, particularly Republicans, in a no-win political position — faced with upsetting one or the other of their strongest and most-feared constituencies.
Among those testifying before the legislative committees against the bill have been representatives from FedEx, Volkswagen and Bridgestone — three of the largest employers in the state. They raised the specter of disgruntled or deranged employees or customers grabbing their guns out of their cars and going on shooting sprees.
All the state’s business associations have lined up in opposition too, including Nashville’s Chamber of Commerce and the hotel and restaurant industries. Also against the bill are the Farm Bureau and many of the state’s hospitals and universities, including Belmont and Vanderbilt.
“This is not an anti-gun position on the part of employers. It’s a pro-employer rights and a pro-property rights position,” said Bill Ozier, chairman of the Tennessee Chamber of Commerce and Industry. “The employer has the right to set rules in the interest of the safety of their other employees.”
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has rated Tennessee the most business-friendly state in the nation, Ozier told the Senate Commerce Committee, but he warned the guns-in-parking-lots bill would hurt that image.
“We’re talking about a lot of jobs here, and a lot of jobs come to Tennessee because of that business-friendly environment,” he said. “If we start to erode that, it’s going to cost Tennesseans jobs in the future.”
Belmont president Bob Fisher said, “In 12 years, I know of no shots ever fired on our campus, and I want to keep it that way. … I simply cannot logically connect how it could be any safer with untrained students or untrained employees having easy access to firearms on our private property.”
A companion bill, which purports to stamp out discrimination against gun owners, bars businesses from forcing workers to tell whether they own or use firearms. It also bans employers from basing hiring, firing or benefits on gun ownership or use, putting gun owners on the same level in state law as protected classes of people such as the disabled.
House leaders tried to stop this bill from even coming up this session for fear it would paint Republicans as extremists and remind voters of last year’s arrest of GOP Rep. Curry Todd on drunken driving and illegal gun possession charges. Todd was the chief sponsor of the state law allowing guns into bars.
Majority Leader Gerald McCormick has proposed a compromise in which workers could bring firearms into store parking lots and other public lots but not fenced employee-only lots. It covers only workers with state-issued handgun carry permits.
But the NRA and Tennessee Firearms Association have denounced that bill and threatened political reprisals against moderate Republicans in the House, including McCormick, Speaker Beth Harwell and GOP Caucus chair Debra Maggart. The Firearms Association has branded them the “axis of evil” and claimed they are “dancing like puppets in the financial purse strings of Big Business.”
Gun proponents contend they need to take guns into company parking lots to protect themselves against criminals as they go to and from work. They call their bill “the Employee Safe Commute Act.” In a letter to legislative leadership, the NRA made parking lots sound like war zones.
“Publicly accessible parking lots aren’t safe havens. Headlines remind us that muggings, robberies, assaults, rapes and even murders happen in these parking lots. That’s why it is essential for law-abiding Tennesseans to have a means of defending themselves and their loved ones should the need arise.”
Testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Sam Cooper, a Memphis employee of Federal Express, said he’s afraid to drive to work without his gun. Around his workplace, he said, there are drug dealers and prostitutes.
“I see the hazards all around the clock,” he said. “Essentially what this bill would do would give me the ability to provide by my own protection to and from work. If you were at a facility that banned smoking, all tobacco products, does that mean you can’t keep a pack of cigarettes in your car? How far are we going to take this?”
Sen. Beverly Marrero, D-Memphis, scoffed at Cooper’s fears.
“I’m from Shelby County,” she told him. “I drive around in Memphis all the time at all hours. I don’t have a gun. Don’t carry one in my car. I feel relatively safe. It seems to me that gentlemen seem more afraid to drive around at night in Memphis than women.”