State Senate Votes in Favor of the "Guns-in-Cars" Bill, Setting Up Potential Conflicts with Business Owners

On Monday, the Tennessee state Senate voted to expand gun rights by approving SB 142—the so-called "guns-in-cars" bill—by a vote of 28 to 5. House Speaker Beth Harwell has said the House version of the bill will probably be passed as well, though the House civil-justice committee had not voted on it at press time.

The bill would allow people with handgun-carry permits (there are about 370,000 in Tennessee) to leave their guns in their cars just about anywhere, including on school campuses, public-building parking lots, and private-business parking lots, unless expressly prohibited by federal law. The bill does give business and property owners and public and private employees immunity from any civil lawsuit for damages, injuries, or death. The Oak Ridge National Laboratory will be exempted from the law.

Currently, people with handgun carry permits may not bring their guns onto public or private school campuses (including buses and athletic fields), or any property owned or used by school boards or university boards of trustees. Individuals, corporations, businesses, and government entities can prohibit guns on their premises. SB 142 will end all that—but it will also tighten one gun law. Currently, any nonstudent adult may have a gun in his or her car while on school property, as long as no one handles the gun while the car is on campus. The new bill would limit the people who are allowed to have guns on school campuses to handgun carry permit holders.

Michael McIntyre, director of the University of Tennessee's MBA program, studies workplace violence, and says impulsive violent acts don't happen that often in the workplace—maybe once about every 12 to 18 months, he says.

"I don't think the presence of guns would increase that frequency," he says. "It could certainly raise the stakes when it does happen. [It] might enable people to defend themselves against such an attack."

The vote for Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey's bill came after he went on Nashville's News Channel 5's Inside Politics, laughing off Chattanooga employer Volkswagen's concern with last year's version of the bill.

"They're going to have a choice between the United States and Mexico—think about that—with the highest murder rates in the world … the gun carry permit holders have proven that they're responsible, they've proven that they will abide by the law, and all this applies to less than 5 percent of the population that has gone through the trouble of doing this," he told the host, Pat Nolan.

A similar bill was filed during the last legislative session, but Ramsey said in the same interview that it was too broad and not clear enough to be passed. And when former House Republican Caucus Chair Debra Maggart declined to sponsor the bill last year, the National Rifle Association made an example of her by throwing thousands of dollars at her Republican opponent in the primary elections, and Courtney Rogers went on to win Maggart's seat in the House. Maggart is a member of the NRA, and had an A+ rating a year before the election.

The Nashville Scene reports there was very little debate about the bill, though Democrats brought up concerns about school shootings and the concerns of businesses.

Gina Stafford, a University of Tennessee System Administration spokesperson, says the university is watching developments in the bill's progress through the Legislature "with great interest," while urging the House to carefully consider the safety of schools and college campuses.

"The university strongly believes that schools and college campuses are unique environments, and such institutions must retain the ability to determine their own firearm policies affecting students, employees, and visitors in the interest of public safety," she says.

The Knoxville Chamber of Commerce declared in its joint state legislative agenda (which is formed with the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce, the Greater Memphis Chamber of Commerce, and the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce) that it supports the preservation of business owners' property rights, which include being able to ban guns from the premises.

Jennifer Evans, the vice president of public policy and education at the Knoxville Chamber, wouldn't talk about whether allowing employees with handgun carry permits to keep their guns in their cars would create a hazardous or stressful working environment.

"It's a property-rights issue to us," she says.

As for local businesses, Cindy McConkey, the senior vice president of corporate communications for Scripps Networks Interactive, says her company "has long had a ‘no-gun-on-premise' policy … regardless of whether a person has a permit." That policy encompasses all Scripps property, including parking lots. McConkey says the policy reflects the company's point of view on the issue, but wouldn't make any additional comments.

Lauren Christ, spokesperson for Pilot Flying J, says the company won't comment on the legislation. Jimmy Haslam, the governor's brother, is the CEO of the company.

Kimberly-Clark Corporation spokesperson Bob Brand says he couldn't comment on the legislation since he didn't know much about it. But the company's current weapons policy is pretty simple.

"We don't allow weapons at our facilities," Brand says. "We expect it to stay that way."

Gov. Bill Haslam, a businessman himself, has hesitated to take a position on the controversial legislation, and refused to do so after the Senate vote.

"Throughout this discussion, the governor has said it is important to find a balance between property rights and Second Amendment rights, and has expressed concerns about school safety. The discussion on this bill is ongoing as it moves to the House," David Smith, Haslam's press secretary, says.

Law enforcement officers have stated they're against legislation like the guns-in-cars bill. But closer to home, Knox County Sheriff J.J. Jones has a different take on the bill.

"I agree with the bill. I see absolutely no reason that, if you have a handgun permit, why you can't leave the weapon in your vehicle," he says through spokeswoman Martha Dooley.

Meanwhile Darrell DeBusk, the Knoxville Police Department's public information officer, says KPD won't take a position on the bill since it hasn't been signed into law.

"We will enforce the law whatever the Legislature decides to do," he says.

Up next for the legislation is a vote in the House civil justice committee, which is scheduled for Feb. 13.