TN AG Opinion Clarifies Scope of “Guns in Trunks” Law
On May 28, 2013, the Tennessee Attorney General issued an opinion providing clarification of the scope of the new Tennessee “Guns in Trunks” law which goes into effect on July 1, 2013. The “Guns in Trunks” law, passed by the Tennessee legislature during its 2013 term and signed by Governor Haslam on March 14, 2013, allows individuals who have a valid handgun carry permit to transport and store guns and ammunition in their private vehicles, so long as the guns and ammunition are appropriately stored in a location hidden from “ordinary observation.”
After the passage of this law, questions arose whether this would restrict the ability of employers to enforce policies restricting employees and others from bringing guns onto company property when those employees and other individuals held a valid handgun carry permit. This debate was fueled by a letter placed in the Senate Journal by sponsors of the bill which indicated it may violate Tennessee public policy if an employer terminated employment if an employee transports a gun in his/her vehicle onto employer owned property in accordance with the “Guns in Trunks” law.
This AG Opinion states that the “Guns in Trunks” law “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” and “does not address and thus has no impact on the employment relationship between an employer and an employee.” The Opinion further recognizes that Tennessee has “long adhered to the employment-at-will doctrine” and that this new law does not impede an employers’ ability to establish employment policies that employees must follow in the workplace, even if such policies restrict otherwise lawful activities (citing examples of other similar policies: anti-nepotism policies, workplace smoking policies, etc.).
Please note that Attorney General opinions do not carry the same precedential effect as court decisions, as they are opinions issued to certain State officials, upon request, to assist in the discharge of their official duties.
Until Tennessee courts address the matter, and they will likely be called upon to do so at some point, it cannot be deemed certain that employers may safely terminate the employment of employees who violate their no weapons policies. The Attorney General did not look at the statute’s legislative history, because he found the statute’s language to be unambiguous. If the courts look at the legislative history, they might take note that, when the bill was passed, several Tennessee state senators submitted the following explanation for their vote in favor: “This bill did not change the employment-at-will doctrine in the state. However, by creating a statutory right for permit holders to transport and store firearms or ammunition in accordance with this bill, 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 under the described circumstances. An employee may have a claim for retaliatory or wrongful discharge if the employee is fired just for exercising this right.”