Tennessee Attorney General Says Guns in Parking Lots Law Doesn't Prohibit Employee Terminations

by Chambliss, Bahner & Stophel, P.C.

Tennessee's "Guns in Parking Lots" bill was signed into law by Governor Bill Haslam on March 14 of this year. http://www.cbslawfirm.com/legal-updates/tennessee-law-signed-governor-haslam-allows-handgun-permit-holders-carry-guns-their-cars/ The law states that "the holder of a valid handgun carry permit recognized in Tennessee may transport and store a firearm or firearm ammunition in the permit holder's privately owned motor vehicle . . . while on or utilizing any public or private parking area." 2013 Tennessee Laws Pub. Ch. 16 (S.B. 142), Section 1. The firearm must, however, be kept from "ordinary observation," and if the permit holder is not in the vehicle, the firearm must be locked in the trunk, glove box, or interior of the vehicle or in a container securely affixed to the vehicle. Id.

The "Guns in Parking Lots" bill is actually an amendment to the Tennessee criminal code and does not address employment relationships.  There has been considerable discussion about whether a Tennessee employer may still terminate a permit holder who brings a firearm onto company property in violation of company policy.  The Tennessee Attorney General has now issued an opinion stating that the "Guns in Parking Lots" law does not prohibit termination under these circumstances.
The Attorney General's opinion relies on the plain wording of the law which, in contrast to other Tennessee statutes, does not alter employment relationships or prohibit employee terminations.  The opinion states:

Chapter 16 [the Guns in Parking Lots bill] 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 Attorney General's opinion also addresses the question of whether the new law applies to individuals who have vehicles which are leased, rented or borrowed but are not owned by the permit holder.  The opinion answers this question in the negative:

Chapter 16 authorizes a handgun carry permit holder to "transport and store a firearm or firearm ammunition in the permit holder's privately-owned motor vehicle." Chapter 16, § 1. The phrase "permit holder's privately-owned motor vehicle" does not include a vehicle leased, rented, or borrowed by the permit holder.  . . .  [T]he clear import of [the bill] 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.

The opinion also indicates that a firearm in a vehicle must be kept out of view at all times and, for example, could not be moved by an employee from one location in the vehicle to another if the weapon would be even briefly observable by a security camera.
Attorney General's opinions are not binding on the courts but are certainly viewed as persuasive authority.  Views contrary to the Attorney General's recent opinion on the "Guns in Parking Lots" law have previously been expressed, and the debate on the question of whether a permit holder is subject to discharge for violating an employer's weapons policy will continue.
The ongoing debate underscores the need for Tennessee employers to carefully review their current weapons policies.  Employers choosing to take a more conservative approach by tailoring their policies to the new "Guns in Parking Lots" law may still adopt enforceable restrictions against weapons on company property and may, for example, prohibit all weapons except firearms of a handgun permit holder which are stored in a vehicle and kept out of view as required by the statute.
Employers and business owners must also be mindful of the requirements of Tennessee Code Annotated Section 39-17-1359.  This section authorizes property owners to prohibit weapons on their property (except as provided in the "Guns in Parking Lots" law) so long as a specified notice of the prohibition is posted.
Please contact a member of the Chambliss Labor and Employment Group if we may answer any questions or provide further guidance.

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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