The Tennessee House of Representatives approved a bill Thursday that would let handgun owners with permits carry their weapons in their cars anywhere they go, putting an apparent end to a four-year fight between business owners and gun rights advocates.
Lawmakers voted 72-22 to pass a guns-in-trunks bill that lifts criminal penalties on carrying a handgun into a parking lot, even a school, university or workplace.
The vote comes as Congress debates tougher gun laws in the wake of the Newtown shooting in December. But in Tennessee's Republican-led legislature, the movement has been toward letting law-abiding gun owners carry their weapons in more places.
Companion legislation already has cleared the Senate, so the measure heads next to the desk of Gov. Bill Haslam. A spokesman for the governor said he will review the bill but probably will sign it.
The legislature's Republican leaders already have put their full weight behind the measure, arguing that after debating the issue every year since 2009, it was time to put the matter to rest. Business groups - the measure's chief opponents in years past - have stood aside as the bill has made its way through the legislature.
The bill has continued to draw fire from some gun rights activists, who argue it does not go far enough to protect gun owners. But in a meeting with House Republicans shortly before the vote, House Speaker Beth Harwell noted that the National Rifle Association has endorsed the measure and said opposition was coming from fringe groups.
She said Republicans should vote as they saw fit but urged them to stick together and bring the debate to a close.
"This caucus has been through a tremendous amount with regards to this piece of legislation, much more than you deserve to have gone through," she said.
About the bill
House Bill 118 lets the nearly 400,000 Tennesseans with handgun permits, plus those with permits from many other states, carry their guns in their vehicles at all times - even in workplace and school parking lots, as long as it remains in a locked vehicle.
The bill also includes a provision meant to keep businesses from being sued in the event of a workplace shooting or if the weapon is stolen.
Guns-in-trunks legislation has divided Republicans along pro-business and gun-rights lines, a split that has derailed the proposal repeatedly since it was introduced in 2009. But after the NRA took out the House's third-ranking Republican, state Rep. Debra Maggart of Hendersonville, in last summer's primary elections, Harwell and her Senate counterpart, Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, pledged to pass a guns-in-trunks bill quickly this year.
Republicans stood by that plan even after the Newtown shooting scrambled the dynamics on gun control elsewhere in the nation, and they pressed ahead Thursday even amid questions about what exactly the bill does.
The measure removes criminal penalties for bringing a gun onto private property, but it is unclear whether businesses could continue to set policies banning firearms.
The bill's House sponsor, state Rep. Jeremy Faison, R-Cosby, said nothing in the measure prevents business owners from firing employees who bring guns to work. But Ramsey, the measure's sponsor in the Senate, has cited other Tennessee laws that suggest the opposite.
It also is unclear whether schools and universities could ban firearms.
Democrats file 11 amendments
Democrats filed 11 amendments, addressing those questions and more. But Republicans struck each of them down, as House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick argued that they should not have been proposed at the last minute.
"We cannot turn every bill into a committee hearing of 99 people," he said, referring to the number of members in the state House.
Afterward, state Rep. Mike Turner, the House Democratic Caucus chairman, said members of his party held back their suggestions in committee in the belief that Republicans would trip themselves up.
"We were kind of shocked they'd do this," he said. "If your opponents are stumbling over themselves, it's not my position to stop them."