The year's most watched piece of gun legislation appears to be on the fast track to the floor of the Tennessee House of Representatives, even though both sides say serious questions remain about it.
A bill that would give nearly 400,000 gun owners in Tennessee the right to carry their weapons in their vehicles anywhere they want - including school and workplace parking lots - could be passed as soon as next week despite widely shared doubts about its scope and effectiveness.
The defeat of a Republican House leader last year for her role in the failure of "guns-in-trunks" legislation made passage of the measure seem inevitable after the November elections. But the dynamics shifted in December after 20 students were gunned down in a Connecticut elementary school, prompting talk of more gun restrictions in Washington.
In Nashville, Republican leaders are eager to pass the bill and move it off legislators' plates after several years of debate. But lobbyists for gun rights, business organizations and universities say it is not clear whether the bill would make it illegal for employers to fire people after they have brought a gun to work. In some cases, they say, the measure might actually place new restrictions on carrying guns in vehicles.
"Over the last four years, the leadership in the General Assembly has been very opposed to this particular bill," said John Harris, executive director of the Tennessee Firearms Association. "It's an odd set of facts when all of a sudden we're moving at breakneck speed. It makes you wonder if these (questions) are unintentional or intentional."
House Bill 118, which a key legislative committee is expected to bring up for a vote today, would rewrite Tennessee's gun laws to make it clear that people with handgun carry permits could take their weapons anywhere in their cars, even businesses, universities and other places where guns are banned.
The legislation, sponsored by Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey in the Senate and backed by Speaker Beth Harwell in the state House, is seen as a major concession to gun rights advocates, especially in the wake of the Newtown, Conn., shooting.
The Senate passed its version of the measure last week. Clearing the House would appear to put an end to several years of debate over "guns-in-trunks" measures.
Business and higher education groups appear to have resigned themselves to the bill's passage. Some even point to silver linings in the latest version of the measure - provisions that narrow its scope and limit the ability of workers fired for having a gun to sue the employer - which they say represent improvements over the National Rifle Association-backed bills that failed in years past.
"We'd prefer that nothing pass at all," said Bradley Jackson, lobbyist for the Tennessee Chamber of Commerce and Industry, "but we do realize that this is a better bill."
Newtown changes the landscape
This year's debate over guns-in-trunks illustrates how the Sandy Hook massacre has shifted the priorities on gun issues, even in a pro-Second Amendment legislature like the Tennessee General Assembly.
Last fall, the NRA led a campaign to defeat the third-ranking Republican in the House, state Rep. Debra Maggart of Hendersonville. In a race watched nationally as a test of the NRA's strength, the organization pinned blame on Maggart for the defeat of gun-in-trunks during the previous legislative session.
Her loss appeared to show that the NRA could still take down statehouse leaders at will.
But rather than flexing its muscle, the NRA has maintained a low profile at the Capitol this year. The association's Tennessee liaison has not testified on the measure's behalf, though the NRA's top lobbyist confirmed this week that the group does support the bill.
"It's a huge step in the right direction," said Chris Cox. "Contrary to what some people might say, we're very supportive of this effort in Tennessee."
Still, the loudest grumblings about the measure making its way to the House floor have come from Harris.
His biggest complaint is that the latest version of guns-in-trunks does not include a provision letting workers bring wrongful termination lawsuits if they are fired for bringing a gun to work. Another complaint is that it limits the right to bring a gun to work only to people with carry permits - potentially leaving out many hunters and other gun owners.
"This puts a lot of citizens at risk," Harris said.
The changes have not been enough to win the support of business groups and universities. But it may have persuaded them to acquiesce to a measure that appears inevitable.
"I'm not hearing a lot about it," said David Gregory, vice chancellor for administration and facilities development for the Tennessee Board of Regents.
For schools, the bill might actually represent a tightening in state law, several people who have reviewed the legislation say. That's because it would change a provision that had been overlooked until recently.
A section of Tennessee code added more than 16 years ago says that a "nonstudent adult" can store a firearm in his or her vehicle while on a school property. By limiting that right only to people with handgun carry permits, the bill may actually tighten restrictions at educational institutions.
"Our position is a little bit different in that we tend to look at this through the lens of student safety and faculty safety," Gregory said. "We're hopeful that the Ramsey bill takes precedent, but we'd like to make that clear."