Politics » Politics Feature

The Firing Line

The GOP legislature girds for another shoot-out over gun legislation.

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Yes, Republicans now have a super-majority in the Tennessee legislature, with 26 of 33 state Senate members and 75 of 99 House members.

But factions do exist within the GOP, as was made obvious in the 2012 session of the General Assembly, when party members feuded over a bill to allow owners of guns to keep their weapons in locked cars on their employers' parking lots. Though the bill was technically sponsored by members of the legislature, it was actually the creation of the National Rifle Association, which maintains an active lobby on Capitol Hill and is a virtual branch of Tennessee state government.

Both the NRA and the like-minded Tennessee Firearms Association have influence throughout Republican ranks in state government (and among Democrats, for that matter), but so do the state's major business interests, which resisted the guns-in-parking-lots bill as a threat to their security and as an offense against private property rights.

The result was serious cleavage, with some Republicans, especially of the Tea Party sort, siding with the NRA and TFA and others, notably Governor Bill Haslam and key members of the party leadership, responding to the reservations expressed on behalf of FedEx, Eastman Kodak, and other prominent industries.

In the 2012 legislative session, business interests were able to prevail. And, after juggling the hot potato for some months, the House Republican caucus decided in a closed-door session just before adjournment to keep the parking-lots bill off the floor. One result was an unprecedented threat from John Harris, executive director of the TFA, who chose to single out state representative Debra Maggart of Hendersonville, the GOP caucus chair, for retribution.

In a widely circulated email, Harris targeted Maggart, on most issues a down-the-line ultraconservative, for elimination, expressing the intent of his group to "display a used crucifix at the entrance to the General Assembly as a warning." So as to eliminate any doubt as to what he meant, he added, "Representative Debra Maggart's political career needs to end much as the Romans crucified criminals."

In the event, Maggart was defeated for reelection in her primary, serving as an object lesson in the punitive abilities of the NRA and the TFA.

To no one's surprise, the guns-in-parking-lots bill has resurfaced in advance of the 2013 legislative session. Lieutenant Governor Ron Ramsey, who serves as speaker of the state Senate, has overseen the development of what will apparently be put forth as a "compromise" measure.

Under the bill, only those gun owners who have carry permits will be able to park their weapons with their cars, and they would be required to put their carry permits on file with their employers. Governor Haslam, who has indicated some kind of compromise bill would be acceptable to him, has insisted mainly that college campuses be exempted from any bill with liberalized gun-carry provisions.

It remains to be seen whether the measure indicated by Ramsey will pass muster with FedEx et al or whether the NRA and TFA will countenance what would be a system, however disguised, of gun registration.

In any case, the issue will be worked out within GOP ranks. And presumably Republican sentiment remains divided. The aforementioned Maggart, writing an op-ed for The New York Times in the wake of the tragic gun massacre in Connnecticut of 20 children and six adult faculty and staff members, took aim at the NRA.

Maggart pointed out that she herself was a lifetime member of the NRA, recipient of "an A-plus rating from the group as a legislator, with a perfect voting record on gun issues." For all that, said Maggart, she had become the NRA's "Number 1 target in Tennessee."

The reason? "As Republican caucus chairwoman, I carried out the wishes of our caucus to defer the NRA's bill because the overwhelming majority of caucus members did not support it."

Maggart proceeded: "Because of NRA bully tactics, legislators are not free to openly discuss the merits of gun-related legislation. ... The NRA's agenda is more about raising money from their members by creating phantom issues, instead of promoting safe, responsible gun ownership."

That's what's called a shot across the bow.

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