Tennessee House Speaker Beth Harwell anticipates more legislative debate over whether gun-carry permit holders should receive additional legal protections to store a weapon in their vehicle while at work.
The General Assembly earlier this year revised state law to eliminate criminal penalties for gun owners who keep a gun in their car at work, even if by doing so they are violating a policy set by their employer.
Harwell, a Republican from Nashville, said she expects some members of the House’s GOP supermajority will file legislation in 2014 to “make some changes to what we passed last year.” The General Assembly is schedule to reconvene on Jan. 14.
Harwell also signaled that the political standoff within the GOP over the issue hasn’t disappeared. “We want to be supportive of Tennesseans’ rights to bear arms,” she said. “We also want to be very sensitive to the businesses being very concerned with their right to fire and hire in this state. So, we will try to balance that as we always try to do.”
The bill the Legislature debated last year passed 28-5 in the state Senate and 72-22 in the House. But while all the General Assembly’s Republicans voted in favor, they didn’t all agree what the new law would actually do.
The prime sponsors in the Legislature last winter — Cosby Rep. Jeremy Faison and Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey — differed, for example, over whether the law actually prohibits an employer from terminating a worker for violating a no-guns policy. Faison said a business owner still retains the right to fire people at will, including violators of firearms bans on company property. Ramsey maintained that an employer who in fact did so would risk losing a lawsuit.
Gun-rights activist John Harris, director of the Tennessee Firearms Association, has said that due to uncertainties in the new law’s language, many holders of gun permits might mistakenly believe they’re protected even from criminal prosecution when in fact under certain innocuous-seeming circumstances they wouldn’t be.
After the Legislature adjourned for the year last spring, Rep. Judd Matheny, a gun-friendly Republican from Tullahoma, formally requested legal guidance on the law’s ambiguities from Tennessee Attorney General Robert Cooper. The state’s top lawyer concluded that the measure the General Assembly passed in fact “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.”
How a boss handles a worker suspected of violating a company gun-ban policy is up to the boss, indicated Cooper. He wrote that the law’s language “does not address and thus has no impact on the employment relations between an employer and an employee.”
In addition, employees who keep a gun in their car contrary to an employer’s demands need to be deliberate about concealing it. The law contains a stipulation that the gun-owner’s weapon and ammo must be “kept from ordinary observation” when on the employer’s premises. In the event that a security camera happens to record somebody handling the firearm, even if it is just to store it away, that person would run afoul of the letter of the law, Cooper suggested.
“If the permit holder is not inside the motor vehicle, then the firearm or firearm ammunition must be ‘locked within the trunk, glove box, or interior of the person’s privately owned motor vehicle or a container securely affixed to such vehicle’,” according to Cooper’s opinion. “A permit holder would fail to meet these requirements if the firearm or firearm ammunition is briefly observable by a security camera while the permit holder places the firearm or firearm ammunition into a non-observable location inside the vehicle.”
Furthermore, Cooper determined that the law’s gun-storage protections don’t apply to people who come to work driving rented or borrowed vehicles, but rather only those who, as stated in the law, “transport and store a firearm or firearm ammunition in the permit holder’s privately owned motor vehicle.”
Cooper wrote that “the clear import of this wording is that the privately owned vehicle is owned by the permit holder.”
“Had the General Assembly intended the bill to reach to leased, borrowed, or rented cars, it could easily have used different language, such as referring to vehicles in the lawful possession of the permit holder,” concluded the attorney general.
Lt. Gov. Ramsey, a Republican from Blountville, told reporters last week that he, too, expects reloaded guns-in-lots debate next year — but he’s planning to dodge the fight as much as possible. “I’m through. I think we passed a good bill. I’m happy with it. Apparently the attorney general wasn’t.”