Doubt and disagreement are circulating in the state Legislature over the scope and particulars of a bill designed to grant some legal security to permitted Tennessee handgun carriers who choose to keep a firearm in their car while at work.
The stated intent of the legislation is to allow the states more than 370,000 gun-carry permit holders to commute to-and-from work with a firearm in their possession.
As the law stands now, a person is committing a crime by having a gun in his or her car on private property where guns are expressly prohibited.
The sponsors of the measure, Lt. Gov Ron Ramsey and Cosby Rep. Jeremy Faison, want to take away threats of criminal prosecution for permit-holding workers. But a question remains as to whether a worker could still be legally terminated for keeping a gun in their car, or be forced to sign a statement declaring that they will refrain from having a firearm on the employer’s property.
One of the state’s foremost and outspoken gun-rights advocates says he’s having trouble making heads or tails of the legislation. “Ron Ramsey claims you can’t be fired. Faison claims you can’t be criminally prosecuted, and neither one of those are completely accurate. You can both be prosecuted and you can be fired,” said John Harris, executive director of the Tennessee Firearms Association.
Harris says there are statutes not addressed in the bills under which a person could still be prosecuted for criminal trespassing and weapons violations. “There’s still this risk that people are going to be arrested and charged, even if this thing passes, under the right set of facts,” he said.
In regards to whether an employee could be fired, Harris said the issue could be addressed by creating an exception similar to the one in the Workers Compensation Statute that prohibits an employer from firing an employee if he or she files a workers compensation claim.
“If they’re doing it on a workers comp kind of case, why in the world wouldn’t they do it when the fundamental issue is the ability of a civilian, who has a carry permit, to do nothing more than transport their gun to and from work and leave it in the car?”
Ramsey, R-Blountville, told reporters last week he thinks “if it’s legal for them to have it in their car, they [employers] couldn’t terminate them based on doing a legal act.”
After asking his legal staff to research the issue, Ramsey told reporters Thursday, “I was exactly correct on this last time. By case law … we’re an at-will state, but you can’t fire someone because of something that is statutorily legal.”
Rep. Faison seemingly testified to just the opposite before the House Civil Justice Committee this week. “We’re not setting policy of how a business deals with its employees,” said the Cocke County Republican when Nashville Democrat Rep. Mike Stewart asked for clarification. Faison responded that the legislation simply provides freedom from criminal prosecution for the employee, but does not protect that individual from being fired or reprimanded by the employer if the business has a policy prohibiting guns.
“If a business decides to fire someone or reprimand someone, that is their role,” Faison told the committee Wednesday. “This is an at-will state, and they should still be able to do what they want with a person who had a gun in their car.”
However, the lieutenant governor said, “There are certain things that are protected. And, I think that if it’s in law that what you’re doing is lawful, [and] if you fired them based on that, even though we’re a Right to Work state, it’s unlawful.”
Ramsey added that a bill sponsored by Knoxville Sen. Stacey Campfield may provide clarity to the employee issue. The Knoxville senator’s bill SB1182 has been assigned to the Senate Judiciary Committee, while its House companion bill, HB 1018, sponsored by Rep. Joshua Evans of Greenbrier, has been assigned to the House Civil Justice Sub-Committee. However, neither have been placed on their respective committee’s calendars.
Ramsey’s Senate Bill 142 has passed the full Senate, while Faison’s House Bill 118 is schedule for a vote in the House on Feb. 28, something Tennessee House GOP Caucus Chairman Glen Casada predicted earlier this month.
“Let me tell you something. I’ve learned that if nobody’s happy, you probably have a good bill,” Casada told TNReport Feb 7. “I understand that the business community is still not happy. Tennessee firearms folks aren’t happy. This is something I think most Tennesseans think is the right thing to do, self defense, so I see it moving forward as is.”