(Note: This updates, expands and replaces earlier post)
State attorney general Bob Cooper says a new state law protecting handgun permit holders from criminal prosecution for keeping their guns in locked cars still leaves them vulnerable to being fired by employers who prohibit weapons on their premises.
Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey said the opinion, made public Wednesday, “ignores the clear legislative intent of the law.” (Note: full text of opinion HERE)
John Harris, president of the Tennessee Firearms Association, said Cooper’s analysis is correct and echoes points that Second Amendment advocates raised during legislative debate, only to be ignored by Republican legislative leadership.
The attorney general’s opinion, requested by Rep. Judd Matheny, R-Tullahoma, also addresses four legal questions raised about the so-called “guns in parking lots” law enacted earlier this year.
Two of them were the subject of considerable debate, including amendments offered on the House floor by Rep. John Mark Windle, D-Livingston, who had Harris’ help in drafting them.
One amendment explicitly declared that a handgun permit holder cannot be fired solely for keeping a gun in his or her car in compliance with the new law. It was killed on a 59-33 vote with most Republicans voting to kill it – Matheny among the exceptions – after arguments that it was unnecessary. Most Democrats voted in favor.
Another Windle amendment, rejected in a similar vote and after similar arguments, declared that handgun using a rental car or a borrowed car, as opposed to a personally-owned vehicle, can still be subject to prosecution. Cooper’s opinion says that permit holders can, indeed face prosecution for keeping guns in a rental or borrowed vehicle.
The law says a permit holder is protected when the gun is “kept from ordinary observation” in his or her vehicle. The opinion says this means the holder is not covered “when a parking lot security camera records him or her placing the firearm or firearm ammunition into a non-observable location in the vehicle.
Ramsey, leading proponent of the bill now known as Public Chapter 16 regularly contended during the legislative session that it would not leave the door open to dismissal of employees.
The opinion says otherwise:
“Chapter 16 by its terms only decriminalizes the carrying and storage of firearms and firearm ammunition in a permit holder’s privately owned motor vehicles in public and private parking areas under defined circumstances. Chapter 16 does not address and thus has no impact on the employment relationship between an employer and an employee.
“The State of Tennessee has long adhered to the employment-at-will doctrine in employment relationships not established or formalized by a contract for a definite term, under which ‘both the employer and the employee are generally permitted, with certain exceptions, to terminate the employment relationship at any time for good cause, bad cause, or no cause’.”
“…The plain and unambiguous language of Chapter 16 does not address or alter the employer/employee relationship or prohibit an employer from terminating an employee for possessing a firearm or firearm ammunition on the employer’s property,” the opinion says.
Asked for comment, Ramsey replied via email that “it was never the intent of the law to disturb” Tennessee’s employment-at-will law, but cited a 1997 state Supreme Court decision that says an employee, despite that law, cannot be fired for “for attempting to exercise a statutory or constitutional right.”
“The General Assembly created a clear statutory right allowing permit holders to lawfully keep a firearm stored in their car while at work,” Ramsey said. “Any employer explicitly terminating a permit holder for keeping a gun locked in his car would violate the state’s clear public policy, opening himself or herself up to legal action.
“The attorney general is entitled to his opinion, but it does not change the General Assembly’s intent or the law,” he said.
Harris said Ramsey’s remarks are contradictory – that “one one hand, he says there was no intent to change the employment-at-will doctrine… and in the next sentence, he says that’s exactly what we did.”