NASHVILLE - Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey disputed assertions Thursday that his bill making it legal for workers to store firearms in vehicles at work leaves them vulnerable to being fired by unhappy employers.
"I think if it's legal for them to have it in their car, they [employers] couldn't terminate them based on doing a legal act," the Blountville Republican told reporters. "There's nothing illegal about having them there."
He said it is "not my intent at all" to leave workers unprotected.
Earlier this week, the House sponsor of Ramsey's bill, Rep. Jeremy Faison, R-Cosby, said the Senate-passed bill will not protect gun-carry permit holders from Tennessee's "at will" employment law.
State law allows employers to fire, suspend or discipline workers for any reason or none at all, according to the state Department of Labor and Workforce Development's website.
"If a business decides to fire someone or to reprimand someone, that is their rule," Faison told the House Civil Justice Subcommittee, which approved the bill. "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."
Ramsey said it "would not be right" for an employee with a carry permit to lose a job.
"I would hope that would never come into play," he said.
Ramsey said he'll research the issue and cited a bill sponsored by Sen. Stacey Campfield, R-Knoxville, that could address any problem.
Campfield has described his legislation as a "don't ask, don't tell" measure for guns: Employers could not ask workers whether they have guns in their vehicles and could not search workers' cars or trucks under most circumstances.
Ramsey's bill is an attempt to resolve a four-year fight over whether workers should be allowed to drive to work with their guns and leave them locked in the vehicle at work.
But Tennessee Firearms Association Executive Director John Harris said Ramsey's take on his bill's protection for workers is "just wrong."
That's why there were two bills last year, Harris said. The first allowed gun owners to store weapons in their locked vehicles on any parking lot, regardless of the owner's wishes. The second was a nondiscrimination bill protecting gun owners from retaliation by employers, he added.
Ramsey's bill applies to the state's estimated 370,000 handgun-carry permit holders. Like the NRA bill, it would cover parking lots owned or leased by private businesses, state and local government, K-12 schools, universities and churches.
Harris is suspicious about what's going on.
Republican leadership in the General Assembly "has fought this bill for four years," he said. "Big Business, FedEx and the Chamber [of Commerce]. They've been vicious about it for years. And now, all of a sudden ... they can't pass it fast enough."
He said he has emailed a detailed list of his concerns to Ramsey, Faison and members of every committee that has heard or will act on the bill.
"And you don't really see any opposition to it" from businesses this year, he said.
The Tennessee Chamber of Commerce says it still doesn't like the bill but noted that lawmakers have sought to address some concerns.
"I think it tells us some kind of deal has been cut in the back room," said Harris.