Executive Summary:On March 14, 2013, Tennessee governor Bill Haslam signed into law the "Tennessee Safe Commute Act."  The new law, which takes effect July 1, 2013, will allow handgun carry permit holders to store firearms and ammunition in their vehicle no matter where they are parked.  With approximately 375,000 Tennesseans who hold handgun carry permits, the new law potentially will have a wide-ranging impact.  However, conflicting statements by sponsors of the legislation raise questions regarding the new law's application with respect to an employer's ability to establish and enforce a policy prohibiting guns in the workplace.

Summary of the Bill

The act, which will be codified at Tenn. Code Ann. § 39-17-1313, essentially converts a handgun carry permit holder's vehicle into a "safe zone" for the storage and transportation of firearms and ammunition.  Following are some of the law's more significant provisions:

  • The new law makes it legal for individuals with valid handgun carry permits to store firearms and ammunition in their own privately owned motor vehicle so long as it is parked in a location "where it is permitted to be."
  • The law applies to all private and public parking lots, with the exception of parking lots at or near schools, public parks or playgrounds, or other public buildings or facilities.
  • The law provides that whenever the permit holder is in his/her vehicle, the weapon and/or ammunition must be kept out of ordinary observation.
  • Whenever the permit holder is not in the vehicle, the firearm or ammunition must be locked within the trunk, a glove box, or interior of the vehicle or within a container that is "securely affixed" to the vehicle.
  • In recognition of its potential impact on employers, the law specifically exempts business entities, public or private employers, or owners, managers or possessors of property from liability in a civil action for damages such as injuries or death resulting from or arising out of another's actions involving a firearm or ammunition transported or stored under the law.

Impact on Workplace Policies Unclear

The law is silent, however, regarding whether employers who currently prohibit employees from bringing firearms onto company property may continue to enforce such prohibitions without running into legal trouble.  Unfortunately for employers, the legislative history does not provide clear guidance as to the General Assembly's intent.  When asked about the act's potential impact on businesses that currently prohibit the possession of firearms on property, Representative Jeremy Faison (R - Cosby), sponsor of the House version of the bill, unequivocally stated, "We are not going to dictate policy setting in a business.  This is an "at will" state.  [Employers] will still be able to do whatever they want."  

Subsequently, Tennessee Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey (R – Blountville), and four fellow Republican co-sponsors submitted a letter to be included with the bill in the Senator Journal suggesting that employers who enforce a gun ban on their property could run afoul of Tennessee's retaliatory discharge laws.  Specifically, the letter provides,

Employers who terminate employees just for exercising this right may violate the state's clear public policy that handgun carry permit holders are allowed to transport and store firearms or ammunition[.]  

The use of the phrase "clear public policy" appears to be an appeal to Tennessee's statutory and common law provisions, both of which prohibit employers from terminating an individual's employment "as a result of the employee's attempt to exercise a statutory or constitutional right, or for any other reason that violates a clear public policy."  Crews v. Buckman Labs. Int'l, Inc., 78 S.W.3d 852, 862 (Tenn. 2002).  Despite this attempt to clarify the act's protections, it is not certain whether Tennessee courts would agree. 

Employers' Bottom Line: Due to the conflicting legislative history, uncertainty still surrounds the extent of the Safe Commute Act's impact on an employer's right to prohibit guns in the workplace.  For now, employers should take full advantage of the law's clearly stated limitations.  For example, the law protects only the rights of holders of a valid handgun carry permit.  Thus, "no guns at work" policies may still be validly enforced against any employee without such a permit.  Moreover, the law does not protect the storage or transportation of a firearm in a company-owned vehicle or in the vehicle of a co-worker, regardless of whether the employee possesses a valid handgun carry permit.  Finally, any weapons and ammunition must be kept out of ordinary view and must be properly locked and secured within the vehicle whenever the permit holder is not in his/her vehicle.  Failure to comply with the law's strict requirements could provide employers with valid means to enforce an otherwise non-discriminatory prohibition against bringing weapons onto company property.  To ensure compliance with the law, employers seeking to enforce such a policy against an employee should conduct a thorough investigation and seek input from experienced employment counsel before taking adverse action.

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