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NASHVILLE - Tennessee employers still can fire workers who violate company policy by storing firearms in their vehicles parked on employer property, despite a new state law, State Attorney General Robert Cooper says in a new legal opinion.
Cooper's legal analysis, requested by Rep. Judd Matheny, R-Tullahoma, quickly reignited debate over the impact of the so-called "guns in parking lots" bill passed by state lawmakers in this year's session.
The bill, signed by Gov. Bill Haslam in March, takes effect July 1. It allows holders of state-issued handgun carry permits to store their firearms and ammunition out of sight in vehicles on most public and private parking lots.
It was drafted by Republican legislative leaders as a way to put behind them a years-long controversy that caught them up in a crossfire between gun-rights advocates, who demanded the legislation, and Tennessee's business community, which largely opposed it.
The Tennessee Firearms Association quickly criticized GOP leaders' plan during the session. The problem, the group's executive director, John Harris, argued, was it did nothing to alter Tennessee's "employment at will" law.
That law allows employers to fire workers for any reason or for no stated reason at all.
In his analysis, Cooper said the new law exempts holders of a valid handgun carry permit from criminal penalties as a result of bringing and storing their firearms in their vehicles on most parking lots if the weapons are kept out of sight.
But, Cooper wrote, the law "only decriminalizes the carrying and storage of firearms and firearm ammunition. ... It does not address and thus has no impact on the employment relations between an employer and an employee."
During the legislative session, Republican Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey, of Blountville, the Senate sponsor, insisted workers would not be left vulnerable to being fired.
After the bill passed, Ramsey and the Senate's four other GOP sponsors included a letter in the Senate journal stating their intent.
After Cooper's opinion was released Wednesday, Ramsey issued a statement saying the opinion "ignores the clear legislative intent of the law."
"Any employer explicitly terminating a permit holder for keeping a gun locked in his car would violate the state's clear public policy, opening himself or herself up to legal action," Ramsey said.
Harris, an attorney, said Cooper raised "exactly the same flaws" he had.
Harris questioned whether Ramsey, the lieutenant governor, knows the effect of the law.
"If he does, the [Cooper] opinion clearly provides strong evidence that the lieutenant governor is knowingly misrepresenting the effect of the law," Harris said. "If he does not understand this relatively simple law, then the other senators and the citizens must really question whether he should remain the lieutenant governor."
Contact staff writer Andy Sher at 615-255-0550 or firstname.lastname@example.org.