by Kara E. Shea
The Tennessee law giving handgun carry permit holders the right to transport and store firearms and/or ammunition in their vehicles parked in an employer’s parking lot goes into effect July 1. With the enforcement deadline at hand, employers understandably want to know whether they need to alter current “no weapons” policies that ban weapons on all parts of their property, including parking lots. Unfortunately, the answer remains uncertain, although a recent opinion from the state attorney general seems to indicate that you still may be able to enforce such policies.
To recap, the popularly dubbed “guns in trunks” bill was signed into law by Governor Bill Haslam on March 14 after it passed by a wide margin in both the Tennessee Senate and House of Representatives. Previous versions of the law faced resistance from the Tennessee business community last year, but it passed easily this year, helped along by provisions of the new bill stating that businesses won’t be liable for damages or injuries caused by firearms stored by employees on their premises in accordance with the new law.
The new bill (“Chapter 16”) amends an existing law governing criminal offenses (“Title 39”), which had been widely interpreted to allow employers to ban weapons from their premises as long as notice is given. Title 39 reads, in part, “An individual, corporation or business entity is authorized to prohibit the possession of weapons by employees otherwise authorized by this subsection . . . on premises owned, operated or managed by the individual, corporation or business entity. Notice of the prohibition shall be posted or otherwise noticed to all affected employees.”
So the question is, following the enactment of Chapter 16, can employers still ban weapons in vehicles if the owner has a carry permit? The bill’s sponsors seemed to disagree on the answer to that question. During this year’s debate, Representative Jeremy Faison (R-Cosby) said the bill’s purpose is to prevent criminal prosecution of employees, not to infringe on employer rights. He said Tennessee would remain an at-will-employment state and employers would be free to fire someone for having a gun—or for any other reason or no reason at all.
But senate sponsors, including Sullivan County Republican Ron Ramsey, the senate speaker and lieutenant governor, argued that case law makes it problematic for an employer to fire someone solely for exercising a lawfully conferred right. Ramsey and other senators also took the rare step of submitting to the senate clerk an “explanation of vote” for publication in the senate journal.
In part, the explanation says, “This bill did not change the employment-at-will doctrine in the state. However, by creating a statutory right for permit holders to transport and store firearms or ammunition in accordance with this bill, employers who terminate employees just for exercising this right may violate the state’s clear public policy that handgun carry permit holders are allowed to transport and store firearms or ammunition under the described circumstances. An employee may have a claim for retaliatory or wrongful discharge if the employee is fired just for exercising this right.”
And most recently, Tennessee Attorney General Robert Cooper weighed in, issuing an opinion on May 29 that employers can lawfully fire workers who bring guns to work in violation of their policies even if the employees otherwise abide by the provisions of Chapter 16 (having a carry permit, storing the weapon inside their vehicles as required by the statute, and so forth). The attorney general opinion says that while the law removed criminal penalties for carrying a gun to the employer’s property without permission, it didn’t change the state’s at-will-employment status.
The new attorney general opinion is persuasive authority and will bolster the position of employers that may wish to test the new law by continuing to enforce broad no-weapons policies. But given the conflicting legislative history and all-around controversial nature of the issue, it seems likely that the termination of carry-permitted employees will be challenged in the courts.
And finally, it seems quite likely that because of the “loose ends” left by the passage of Chapter 16, this issue will be addressed in the legislature yet again next year, possibly resulting in further amendments to Chapter 39.
Bottom line: Employers should review their workplace violence and no-weapons policies and should tread particularly carefully when disciplining or terminating employees who violate these rules. As always, it’s best to seek legal advice tailored to the specifics of your situation.
Kara Shea is the editor of Tennessee Employment Law Letter and an attorney with Butler, Snow, O’Mara, Stevens and Cannada, PLLC, in Nashville. She can be reached at 615-651-6712 or firstname.lastname@example.org.