published Thursday, February 14th, 2013

Tennessee guns-in-parking lot bill won't protect workers' jobs

NASHVILLE — A House panel on Wednesday quickly advanced a bill that would block employers, businesses, colleges and churches' ability to bar handgun-carry permit holders from storing firearms in vehicles parked on their property.

But the bill's sponsor acknowledges that nothing in the measure would prevent employers from legally firing permit-holding workers who keep guns in their vehicles while on the job.

Rep. Jeremy Faison, R-Cosby, said the Senate-passed bill doesn't protect permit holders from Tennessee's existing "at will" employment law.

That law allows employers to fire, suspend or discipline workers for any reason, good or bad, or for no reason at all.

"We are not going to dictate policy-setting at a business," Faison said in response to a question posed to him during the House Civil Justice Subcommittee.

Faison said "if a business decides to fire someone or to reprimand someone, that is their rule. ... You can fire, this is an at-will state and they'll still be able to do whatever they want with a person who has a gun in their car."

Speaking to reporters later, Faison said, "I would discourage [businesses firing workers] and I hope that businesses won't go that way. I would say if there was an uprising in the state and you started seeing people being fired left and right I wouldn't be surprised if the Legislature revisited it."

But he said, "I don't know of any company who's just eager to go fire their employees. They already know who has guns" and don't do it now.

John Harris, executive director of the Tennessee Firearms Association, quickly sent out an email alert to members after the legislation moved through the panel on a voice vote.

"What will surprise some people is that the bill does not protect the employee's job -- it only removes some criminal penalties," Harris wrote.

Harris said "the law is a Georgia-style law because the employers will retain the ability to fire any employee with cause -- that is, deny you unemployment benefits -- if you are found to be or are even suspected to have a firearm in your car."

In the email's subject line, Harris wrote "Safe Commute -- BUT LOSE YOUR JOB."

Republican Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey brought the bill in an effort to resolve a four-year battle between gun-rights groups and businesses over the original "Safe Commute" bill.

Advocates say the issue is key to them because if lot owners bar legal gun owners from keeping firearms in their locked vehicles, it effectively guts Tennesseans' ability to protect themselves going to and from work or conducting daily activities.

Businesses, college and universities argued the measure infringes on their private property rights and compromise safety efforts.

The original Safe Commute Act, which was backed by the National Rifle Association, applied to all legal owners of guns. Last year's companion measure prevented employers from questioning employees about gun use and ownership and gave them a cause of action to sue employers if fired for having a gun in their vehicle. Neither bill passed.

While employment protection is not in Ramsey and Faison's bill, two measures sponsored by other lawmakers do seek to protect gun-owning employees.

Another difference in Ramsey's bill over last year's NRA bill is that it applies solely handgun-carry permit holders, who undergo criminal background checks and take a day gun-use course to get licensed.

Ramsey's bill also relieves lot owners from legal liability in the event of a shooting.

about Andy Sher...

Andy Sher is a Nashville-based staff writer covering Tennessee state government and politics for the Times Free Press. A Washington correspondent from 1999-2005 for the Times Free Press, Andy previously headed up state Capitol coverage for The Chattanooga Times, worked as a state Capitol reporter for The Nashville Banner and was a contributor to The Tennessee Journal, among other publications. Andy worked for 17 years at The Chattanooga Times covering police, health care, county government, ...

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