The House Civil Justice Committee approved the measure on a voice vote. Supporters argued that companies still could prohibit employees from bringing weapons on their property, but the bill would eliminate criminal charges against violators.
“We’re not setting a policy of how a business deals with its employees,” said Republican Rep. Jeremy Faison of Cosby, the bill’s main sponsor in the House.
Legislative attorney Thomas Tigue said the bill would not alter company policies.
“If your employee manual says you can’t drink at work, and you’re over 21 and it’s legal for you to drink, you can still suffer employment consequences,” he said. “This bill does not affect what does happen or does not happen.”
The Senate approved its version 28-5 earlier this month as GOP leaders have sought to avoid a repeat of last year’s drawn-out fight between gun advocates and the business community.
The failure of last year’s bill ended up costing House Republican Caucus Chairwoman Debra Maggart her legislative seat when the National Rifle Association and other gun advocates later bankrolled efforts to defeat her in the primary.
The full House could vote on the bill next week. Republican Gov. Bill Haslam has tried to keep his distance and hasn’t said whether he would sign it into law.
Democrats on the House panel said they weren’t convinced that the measure wouldn’t override the will of employers seeking to ban firearms, especially among non-employees.
“I can fire my employees if they bring guns onto the property, but I have no control over what other people bring onto my property,” said Rep. Mike Stewart, D-Nashville.
“Historically we’ve taken the position that if you own a business, you ought to be able to run the show for that business,” he said. “Aren’t we essentially taking away the property rights of these business owners?”
Republicans on the committee disagreed.
“This doesn’t appear to me to affect a property owner or an individual’s right to control their property as they see fit,” said Rep. Vance Dennis, R-Savannah. “It just takes the government out of that enforcement mechanism.”
Faison said his bill would not apply to areas like airports, railroads or secure facilities governed by federal law.
“We’re not as a state going to try to trump any federal laws,” he said.
Current law allows non-student adults to store guns in vehicles parked in school or college parking lots. The bill would extend that ability to the state’s nearly 400,000 handgun carry permit holders.