NASHVILLE -- The National Rifle Association and gun activists won a skirmish with many of Tennessee's largest businesses and employers when lawmakers this week moved forward a measure that would allow gun owners to keep handguns in their cars in parking lots across the state.
Two guns-in-parking lots bills sailed out of a House committee Tuesday after a National Rifle Association lobbyist declared that FedEx's opposition "is a reason for this bill to be passed."
The NRA and its supporters call the parking lots bill the "Employee Safe Commute Act." Observers call the dust-up a battle over property rights versus gun rights.
One of the bills allows handgun-carry permit holders to keep guns in their locked vehicles on most parking lots in the state -- including public and private K-12 schools, colleges and universities -- and forbids most employers and business property owners from banning them.
The second forbids employers from asking current and potential employees questions about their gun ownership, gun-carry licensure and carry habits, and gives employees and job candidates who are asked such questions a right to sue.
Both bills are now headed for the House Calendar Committee, which schedules legislation for House floor votes.
Although Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey, R-Blountville, has said he doesn't expect the bills to reach the Senate floor for votes before the legislature adjourns for the year within the next month, gun-rights activists talked after the House committee meeting of pressuring legislative leaders in both chambers for floor votes.
In his brief testimony today to the House Consumer and Employer Affairs Committee, NRA lobbyist Darren LaSorte cited FedEx's opposition to the measure.
"FedEx has 15,000 employees in Memphis, the second most violent city in America according to the FBI violent crime stats. The number one rape rate in the country, large cities over 500,000. FedEx disarms their employees that entire time. That is unconscionable. They are the reason this bill needs to pass, not the reason it needs to be killed," LaSorte said.
Sam Cooper, a FedEx employee based in Memphis, said it is an issue of personal safety for him. Cooper, who has worked for years to win legislative approval of bills removing employers' legal authority to set their own policies on whether to ban or permit guns on their parking lots, also spoke briefly to the committee in favor of the bills.
"I am here just to represent myself as an employee that travels to and from work every day. I live in Memphis, Tennessee. I work at Memphis International Airport. We talk about property rights but I'd like the committee members to ask themselves this question and place these three items in order of your own personal priorities: property rights of an employer; the property rights of me, the vehicle owner; or my personal safety, my well being.
"We've been arguing property rights and we've been placing property rights arguments over the fact of why I need to carry the weapon in the first place: I want to go home alive," Cooper said.
Representatives of the Tennessee Chamber of Commerce, a large East Tennessee hospital chain and the state's public and private universities spoke against the bills.
August Washington, chief of Vanderbilt University's campus police, told the committee "these bills actually create a greater challenge for campus law enforcement to provide security" for students, faculty and staff on the state's campuses.
The parking lot bill has three exemptions, under an amendment presented by its sponsor, Rep. Eddie Bass, D-Pulaski: occupants of single-family residences and farms can prohibit people from bringing firearms in their cars onto their property, and guns would remain prohibited on the parking lots of facilities licensed by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the parking lots of science and energy national laboratories, like Oak Ridge National Laboratories.
The bill is part of a nationwide push by the NRA. Eighteen states have similar parking lot laws, starting with Kentucky in 2005.