Tennessee employers, public and private, are declaring that the state’s “guns in parking lots” law, which took effect July 1, does nothing to change policies prohibiting their employees from bringing weapons onto their property, even if they have a handgun carry permit.
That has prompted Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, a leading supporter of the new law, to declare that he will “probably” support an anticipated push to change the law next year to clarify that permit holders cannot be fired solely for having their gun in a locked car in their employers’ parking lots.
That runs counter to the declared wish of Gov. Bill Haslam that gun laws in Tennessee remain at the “status quo” in the 2014 session with no new gunfights.
“I hate that the attorney general has muddied the waters on this,” said Ramsey, who said he has been receiving complaints from employees of Eastman Chemical Co. this summer who were upset that the company’s prohibition on guns in parking lots is unchanged.
He referred a formal legal opinion from Attorney General Bob Cooper in May that says the new law — while forbidding any criminal prosecution of permit holders complying with its provisions — will have no impact on Tennessee law that otherwise generally allows a company to fire an employee “at will,” for any reason or no reason.
The Senate speaker said he was also aware of a University of Tennessee memo to employees that says policy on guns on UT campuses is unchanged by the new law. The state Board of Regents has not sent out a memo, but has the same position, a spokeswoman says. The law applies to both public and private employers.
Ramsey says Cooper is wrong. He cites a state Supreme Court decisions that say there’s an exception to the “at will” doctrine when the firing is the result of an employee following an established, legally defined public policy. When the Legislature enacted the new law, Ramsey contends, that established a clear public policy declaring handgun permit holders can take with them a weapon — if left inside a locked and personally owned vehicle — without risk of being discharged.
Ramsey inserted into the official legislative record of the law a statement that basically says the same thing as a matter of “legislative intent.” But Cooper’s opinion in effect says that really doesn’t make any difference, given the language of the new law.
As for legislative intent, a key factor when courts rule in such cases, The Tennessee Bar Journal, in an article on the matter, states: “At the least, there appears to be a communication breakdown between the House and the Senate on this bill.”
The article in the official publication of the Tennessee Bar Association, cites comments by Rep. Jeremy Faison, R-Cosby, during legislative debate that the bill — now law — will still leave the door open to firing employees bringing guns onto property of employers who prohibit it.
In House floor debate, Faison opposed an amendment proposed by Rep. John Mark Windle, D-Livingston, that would have explicitly declared that employers could not fire a handgun permit holder for having his or her weapon in a locked vehicle on the employer’s property. It was killed on a generally party-line vote.
In hindsight, Faison said Friday, the Windle amendment “might have been” an appropriate addition to the law. The concern in opposing it at the time, he said, was that the legislation not “dictate to business” in contravention of the general “at will” firing law.
“My whole deal is that I was hoping that businesses would say, ‘The state of Tennessee is setting a policy like this, so we should do the same thing’,” he said.
That, it appears, has not been the case.
Eastman Chemical spokeswoman Kristin Sturgill says the company, after a review of the law and the attorney general’s opinion, “concluded our policy did not require amendment in light of the new legislation.”
UT spokeswoman Gina Stafford says UT concluded the same thing. The policy of UT and the state Board of Regents, which governs all other higher education institutions in the state, including community colleges and technical institutes, says that students, faculty and employees cannot bring guns onto campuses.
A memo recently distributed to UT faculty and staff states:
“In accordance with an opinion issued by the Tennessee attorney general on May 28, university policies prohibiting the possession of firearms on university property are not affected by the guns in trunks law and will remain in effect on July 1.”
Monica Greppin-Watts, spokeswoman for the Board of Regents, said the Regents system has not sent out a formal memo, though it may soon, but believes the law had no impact on policy.
“We held a conference call with the TBR institutions’ chiefs of police a few weeks ago to discuss the matter and let them know that we will be following the attorney general’s ruling,” she said in an email.
Faison said he suspects such declarations are merely posturing.
“If it comes right down to it, I don’t think they would really do it (fire a permit holder for a gun in a locked vehicle),” he said, noting his declaration during debate that if businesses “start to fire people after we’ve done this” the Legislature will come revisit the issue and consider a straightforward ban on dismissals.
Employers with gun bans in effect “know the votes are there” in the General Assembly to change the law, he said, and that should incline employers against any actual firings.
So far, Faison said, there has been no actual instance of an employee dismissal — though the law has only been in effect for “a couple of weeks.” Faison said he will “wait and see how this all plays out” before the start of the 2014 legislative session in January.
Faison said federal laws already prohibit employers from hiring and firing on the basis of age, race, gender and ethic background as a matter of civil rights. The same standard, he said, should apply to the Second Amendment constitutional right to keep and bear arms.
“Businesses cannot fire or discriminate on the basis of civil rights,” he said. “It would seem our constitutional rights would be just as valuable.”
The Tennessee Bar Journal article says employers should be cautious about firing a handgun permit holder for having his or her weapon in a car.
“Our advice to employers would be to tread lightly in this area, or risk being a test case for a terminated permit carrier,” the article says.