Debate brewing between NRA, legislators and business owners

Robert Houk • Mar 26, 2012 at 8:30 AM

It’s not easy being Rusty Crowe. The Republican senator from Johnson City is the senior member of the Northeast Tennessee delegation to the state General Assembly. During his nearly 22 years in Nashville, Crowe has just about seen and done it all.

You have to remember this is a politician who started his career in the Senate as a Democrat, but switched parties shortly after Don Sundquist was elected governor in 1994. Crowe has been caught in the middle of many bruising debates, including Sundquist’s ill-fated effort to create a state income tax.

Crowe has managed to emerge from each battle unscathed and a little bit wiser. Yes, he’s seen a lot as a state senator, but even Crowe admits he has never seen anything like the “polarizing” debate about to come on the so-called “guns in parking lots” bill.

The legislation would allow those with a carry permit from the state to keep a weapon in their parked car regardless of the wishes of the business owner. Currently, property owners are allowed to post signs forbidding weapons from being brought onto their premises.

The “guns in parking lots” bill trumps those property rights in favor of the Second Amendment. Businesses and large employers — such as East Tennessee State University (where Crowe used to work) and Mountain States Health Alliance (where he is now employed) — don’t like the bill.

Heck, even the Farm Bureau and Chamber of Commerce types are against it. But gun owners support it, and more importantly, the National Rifle Association (which wrote the legislation) loves it.

Speaking to a journalism class at ETSU last week, Crowe told students he will likely lose friends no matter how he votes on the bill. That’s because it splits a base that is traditionally Republican-friendly and like-minded on most issues.

You have to wonder, though, what genius in the NRA’s lobbying department thought this would be a good idea. After all, this issue could easily cost the NRA many friends in the business community.

But on the other hand, do businesses really think that posting a sign is enough to keep pistols from being toted in vehicles that cross their property boundaries? This is Tennessee, and as one Carter Countian once told me, you should assume everyone is packing.

Normally, these type of NRA bills are introduced in election years (which this most certainly is) to gin up support for Republican candidates. The “guns in parking lots” bill, however, is exactly the kind of base-busting legislation Republicans try to avoid late in the session. Crowe says the speakers of the House and Senate hope to adjourn the session by the middle of April.

That schedule doesn’t give lawmakers on either side much time to draft a compromise that will satisfy both gun rights and property rights activists. A practical solution would be to send the legislation to a summer study committee. That would allow lawmakers to find some common ground.

But the NRA is dead set against that ploy. It has been very generous to legislators in Tennessee, and now its time to see a return on its investment.

Robert Houk is Opinion page editor for the Johnson City Press. He can be reached at rhouk@johnsoncitypress.com.

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