‘Guns at Work’ Laws Pit Gun Owners Against Employers

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As of July 1, workers in Tennessee can legally store their guns in their vehicles while parked in their employers’ lots. The only question is whether they can be fired for it.

When Gov. Bill Haslam signed the “guns in the trunk” law in March, Tennessee joined a growing number of states with statutes granting the right to leave guns inside locked vehicles. Prior to the new law, private businesses could post notices prohibiting firearm possession by employees, customers and visitors alike, and violators could be charged with criminal offenses. The new law changes the criminal code to allow handgun carry permit holders to transport and store guns in their vehicles, as long as they take precautions like keeping their guns out of “ordinary observation” and locking them up whenever they’re not in the vehicle.

But while the law makes it legal for Tennesseans to take guns on their work commutes, it doesn’t force employers to allow on-premises gun possession by their employees. It also doesn’t prohibit employers from disciplining or firing workers who violate company policies prohibiting guns.

Tennessee Attorney General Robert E. Cooper, Jr.

Tennessee Attorney General Robert E. Cooper, Jr. issued an opinion clarifying that legislators declined the opportunity to specifically prohibit workplace bans on guns. Cooper concluded that the “plain and unambiguous language” of the law 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.”

Cooper’s opinion is not binding on the courts, which sets up a game of chicken between Tennessee’s gun-owning workers and gun-prohibiting employers. If an employee is fired for legally bringing a gun to work in defiance of company policy, it could lead to a wrongful termination suit that may challenge Cooper’s interpretation of the law.

For as long as this issue remains in legal limbo in Tennessee, employers who prohibit their workers from leaving guns in their cars will need to consider how ready they are to go to court to defend their policies.


Growing Gun Rights Trend

Though Tennessee’s law leaves lots of room for litigation between workers and employers, other states have taken a much bolder approach to defending the rights of workers to bring their guns to work.

According to the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, 19 states besides Tennessee have enacted laws that specifically allow most employees to bring their guns to work as long as they keep them secured in their vehicles. Almost half of the laws were enacted in the last three years.

Some states grant special protections to gun owners. Florida prohibits employers from firing employees who keep guns in their cars or even from asking them if they do. Georgia bans employers from searching employee vehicles under most circumstances. Kentucky makes employers liable for civil damages for firing, disciplining or demoting employees for legal gun possession.

Alabama’s guns-at-work law, which goes into effect Aug. 1, is one of the latest of its kind. Roger Belford, the Alabama state senator who introduced the bill, said “the problem we have is that businesses are being allowed to erode and take away our Second Amendment right to bear arms.”

Samuel Hoover, staff attorney for the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, is wary of the trend. He cited a U.S. Department of Labor report that 78% of all workplace homicides in 2011 were shootings.

“Deterring incidents of workplace violence remains a valid concern for employers, and having access to firearms in close proximity to the workplace provides easy access to tools to perpetrate workplace violence,” Hoover said. “Allowing guns in vehicles on employer property increases the likelihood that a violent or disgruntled employee will have access to a firearm while at work and prevent employers from adequately controlling the safety of other employees and customers.”

“Public safety and employer rights should trump allowing guns in vehicles in parking lots.  These laws have been trending for about three years now, and are part of a gradual weakening in certain states of public safety regulations that had restricted guns in public places.”  

Should employers be able to ban guns in their parking lots? Should all workers be allowed to bring guns along on their commutes? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.

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