By Chas Sisk / The Tennessean
Legislation that would make it easier for gun owners to carry their weapons appears to be on track in Tennessee even after last week's school massacre in Newtown, Conn.
Backers of "guns-in-trunks" bills that would require employers to allow firearms in their parking lots say they plan to move ahead with the measures, even though a gunman killed 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School on Friday.
The shooting could even lead to new bills that would let teachers, professors and administrators carry handguns into schools and universities, they said.
Supporters of gun control have called for tighter restrictions on ownership in the wake of the Sandy Hook shooting, with President Barack Obama hinting that he might back such an effort. But in Tennessee, gun rights advocates say they have no plans to change course.
"The only thing this shooting and other shootings have in common is that they all happened in gun-free zones," said state Rep. Joshua Evans, a past sponsor of so-called guns-in-trunks legislation. "I think there probably needs to be a conversation, but probably in the opposite direction of where the president is going."
Since 2001, seven murders and one shooting determined to be a justifiable homicide have taken place in Tennessee schools, colleges or day care facilities. Other gun crimes in those settings have been rare, and usually involved weapons law violations, aggravated assaults or robberies.
But gun legislation was already on the agenda in Tennessee before the Sandy Hook shooting.
Republican lawmakers have been working on a compromise on the guns-in-trunks issue, which has pitted gun rights and business groups against each other in recent years. Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey has taken a lead role, and as recently as Thursday he outlined the framework of a bill he thought could pass the legislature.
Ramsey did not respond to requests for comment on Monday. But two of the bill's sponsors, as well as one of the state's chief lobbyists on gun rights, said they still plan to press for a guns-in-trunks bill - and possibly more.
"It has not altered any plans of the Tennessee Firearms Association," said John Harris, the group's executive director. "Our principal goal is to remove all statutory and regulatory restrictions on firearms possession."
Some members of Tennessee's congressional delegation, including Rep. Jim Cooper, D-Nashville, expressed a willingness to consider new gun laws, while others said they would fail to get at the problem.
"I am willing to consider any proposal that will keep our children safe, regardless of politics," Cooper said in a statement. "Nothing is more important."
Cooper and other Middle Tennessee lawmakers, asked about the prospect of new federal gun laws, were hesitant to talk specifics but said they would consider all factors that might have contributed to the Newtown shooting.
But Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander, who faces re-election in 2014, noted that Connecticut has strong gun laws.
"The problem is not with the gun but with the person pulling the trigger," he said.
Gun murders on par
Many advocates for gun rights say the shooting has shown the need for greater self-protection.
Despite having relatively lax gun laws, Tennessee's rate of firearms used in murders has been on par with other states and the national average, according to numbers compiled by the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
From 2009 to 2011, firearms were used in 62 to 65 percent of murders in the state. Nationwide, about 67 percent of murders in the same period included some type of firearms.
Gov. Bill Haslam said Monday that legislators should not alter Tennessee's gun laws after the Sandy Hook shooting. The governor said his administration would favor improving mental health services.
"I don't know a lot of legislation that I've seen would have stopped what happened there," Haslam told reporters after an event in the State Capitol.
Haslam's comments were greeted favorably by Robert Williams, a Jackson mental health counselor whose adult son has schizophrenia.
"Year after year budget cuts at the state and national level have just chipped away at funding for mental health," he said. "We need to rethink what we're doing."
Former state Rep. Debra Maggart, R-Hendersonville, said the shooting should convince lawmakers to drop the issue. Maggart lost her seat last fall when the NRA backed her opponent in the Republican primary, punishment for her leadership role in holding up guns-in-trunks legislation in 2012.
She said the shooting in Connecticut should lead more lawmakers to take on the gun lobby.
"Here we have sweet, innocent 6-year-olds and 7-year-olds at Christmas," she said. "I never had anybody tell me they had to have that bill until the NRA spent all that money making it an issue."
But business was brisk for local gun shop owners on Monday, though most attributed the activity to normal holiday shopping.
"This is the busiest time of the year anyhow, but I haven't seen any increase over what's normal," said Glen King, the owner of Guns & Ammo Depot on Old Hickory Boulevard in Nashville.
He said he didn't think the shooting would inspire change.
"It's a very sad thing, but I don't see anything happening," he said. "Columbine was a big deal, but nothing ever happened after that."
Flo Hopkins, a co-owner at Shooter's Guns & Ammo on Murfreesboro Pike in Nashville, said her business is double or triple what it was this time last week. Many of the customers, she said, fear a renewed effort to scale back gun rights.
"They want to get their guns before Obama does something," she said.
Most Tennesseans appear to support guns-in-trunks legislation. A poll taken for Vanderbilt University before the shooting showed that 53 percent of Tennessee's registered voters support such legislation. Forty-four percent said employers should not be required by the state to let employees keep guns in their vehicles.
"That's not the first horrific incident that we've had in America, and there's a recent poll in Tennessee that showed most people would be in favor of letting employees keep their weapons locked in cars on business property," Haslam added. "I don't know if this will change."
Haslam said his administration would hold a statewide conference in January on school safety in the wake of the Sandy Hook tragedy.
Guns in schools?
The shooting could also open up new topics for debate.
State Sen. Stacey Campfield, another sponsor of guns-in-trunks legislation, said he is working on a bill that would allow teachers to carry handguns into schools that are not already patrolled by armed police officers.
A bill that passed last week in Michigan could be a model. It lets people with handgun carry permits take their weapons into restricted zones if they receive additional training and certification.
But state Rep. Mike Turner, the House Democratic Caucus chairman, said the shooting might put the brakes on gun legislation.
"I don't agree with people that want to ban guns, but at the same time I've got a problem with wanting to arm all the teachers," he said. "Last year, cooler heads prevailed on the Republican side. There may be enough of us to stop it from happening."
Editor's note: A previous version of this story included a reference to Sen. Bob Corker being among legislatures willing to look at new gun laws. That was a mistake. The reference has been removed and we apologize for any confusion.
Senator Corker's Office released this statement:
"Like any parent, I am heartbroken about what has happened, and like other Tennesseans, I have the victims and families in my thoughts and prayers. Given such an unspeakable act of violence perpetrated on children, it's appropriate to talk about what we're doing to keep our communities safe, recognizing the issues involved are complex, especially when it comes to identifying and acting upon the warning signs that always seem to precede these incidents. Undoubtedly, every contributing factor will be examined."