Tennessee’s ‘guns in parking lots’ bill a net drain on liberty

As states around the nation try to preempt a new push for federal gun control laws, the Volunteer State has stepped forward as a shining example of what not to do. Most gun owners are happy with State Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey’s proposal, which would allow gun owners to keep firearms locked in their cars at their places of employment. But this gun owner believes Ramsey’s bill erodes property rights, and exacerbates a big-government problem with more big government. Tennessee Republicans deserve praise for tackling gun rights ahead of a possible federal intervention package, and the bill’s final passage appears imminent; but Ramsey’s colleagues in the House should reject his proposal and alter their tack before it’s too late.

As Justice Antonin Scalia articulated in the majority opinion in District of Columbia v. Heller, we find the Second Amendment’s roots in the English Declaration of Rights of 1689, which asserted what Scalia called an “ancient right” of people to not be disarmed by the Crown. The Founders also recognized this right, and were wary of a government — any government — that would disarm its citizens. Ownership and possession of firearms, they believed, separated citizens from subjects.

Ramsey’s supporters are rightly bothered by the current regime, under which a gun owner can receive a jail sentence if found in possession of a firearm where a “NO GUNS ALLOWED” sign is posted, even on private property. To that extent, threats of criminal charges and imprisonment have a chilling effect on the exercise of ancient rights. Nobody should doubt the deterrent effect of firearm possession on violent crime, and gun owners are right to want to carry in today’s society.

But the current law was borne out of a conflict of rights: the right of a citizen to keep and bear arms, and the right of a property owner to determine the conditions under which someone may enter his/her property. We should view the issue as one of voluntary bargaining between private actors in the market; this is not a cut-and-dry Second Amendment issue.

Store and office building owners voluntarily buy leisure from employees with wages and benefits, which may include a parking spot, or they voluntarily offer parking as an amenity to consumers in exchange for patronizing their place of business. Employees and consumers alike want to bring firearms with them to the workplace, for purposes of personal protection. But some employers who are anti-gun, for perhaps a multitude of reasons (political ideology, property insurance premium prices, etc.), decided they wanted to prohibit guns from their property. The current law attempts to protect these employers’/owners’ rights to determine who may receive their permission to enter their property, and under what conditions.

Now come gun owners, asking the legislature for a law to effectively criminalize firearm prohibition on private property. Employers and property owners erred in the first place, asking the legislature to step in and criminalize firearm possession. But now both groups seek a government intervention to compel the other group to acquiesce to the terms of an otherwise voluntary commercial exchange! In 2011, the Tennessee GOP gained control of both chambers of the assembly and the governor’s mansion for the first time in history. It’s maddening to watch a Republican Party hell-bent on using big government to solve “problems.”