Weapons at Work? States Consider Requiring Employers to Allow Firearms in Employees' Vehicles

Labor and Employment Alert

Firm Alert

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Several states – including Alabama, Tennessee, and North Carolina – are currently considering legislation that would require employers to allow their employees to bring firearms to work and store them in their vehicles regardless of the employer's human resources policies. The legislative push – largely backed by the National Rifle Association and other pro-gun rights groups – has met resistance from employers who argue the laws would make it easier for disgruntled employees to cause harm and infringes upon their private property rights.

On the other hand, proponents of the legislation say it is needed to protect employees who drive long distances to work and need their guns for personal safety. Supporters also argue that an employer's restrictions on an employee's possession of legally-owned firearms violates their Second Amendment rights, and that the presence of guns possessed by law-abiding citizens will prevent gun-related crime by would-be criminals.

Currently, 18 states mandate that employers allow firearms in their parking lots, according to the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. Tennessee may become the latest to join that group. On February 11, the Tennessee State Senate overwhelmingly approved legislation allowing the estimated 371,800 Tennesseans holding handgun-carry permits to bring their guns to work so long as they keep them locked in their vehicles and out of plain sight, such as in trunks or glove compartments. The bill also contains a section intended to protect employers from lawsuits if a shooting or gun theft occurs at work. The Tennessee House has also moved quickly on the bill and is expected to approve it, with a floor vote coming as early as this week. Gov. Bill Haslam has remained neutral on the legislation – which means chances of a veto are slim.

If the law passes in Tennessee and other additional states, it will likely affect an employer's human resources policies. Employers' no-weapons policies typically range from a formal, written policy prohibiting guns on an employer's property no matter where they are kept, to a written policy allowing firearms in employees' cars but banning them elsewhere, to an informal don't ask, don't tell policy. If the Tennessee law passes as written, it would preempt employers with policies prohibiting guns at work regardless of whether they are kept.

This may rankle employers fearful of an employee retaliating after having been terminated or disciplined by retrieving their gun from their car at work and coming back inside the workplace to seek retribution. For example, in 2008 in Kentucky, a state which prohibits employers from banning guns in company parking lots, an employee had an argument with his supervisor concerning the employee's lack of use of safety goggles and for excessively talking on his cell phone, according to reports of the incident. As the supervisor was escorting the employee out of the building, the employee shot the supervisor with a pistol he had retrieved from his car and then shot and killed five of his coworkers before killing himself.

Tennessee is not the only state considering the "guns-in-trunks" legislation. In North Carolina and Alabama, the legislatures are considering similar bills allowing employees to bring their firearms onto their employer's parking lots, regardless of that employer's policies. Prospects for passage in those states do not appear as likely as Tennessee at this point, however, according to media reports. Other southeastern states have already passed guns-in-trunks bills, including Mississippi, Florida, and Louisiana. Georgia allows employers to ban firearms from their property but prohibits employers from searching employee's vehicles for weapons.

The Tennessee legislation would not only apply to the parking areas of privately-held businesses. It would also potentially apply to the parking lots – owned or leased – of K-12 schools, universities, and churches. Some Tennessee legislators – concerned that employers will retaliate against an employee who takes a firearm to work – are also pushing a bill prohibiting employers from firing an employee who complies with the "guns-in-trunks" law (assuming it is passed and not vetoed).

Employers, human resources professionals, and employees alike will need to monitor the success or failure of the guns-in-trunks legislation pending in their states and adjust their policies accordingly to stay within the bounds of the law while – at the same time – providing a safe work environment for employees in accordance with the Occupational Safety and Health Act ("OSHA"). If the proposed legislation in Tennessee or other states becomes law, employers may want to consider increased training on how to avoid workplace violence and proper reporting mechanisms for when threats of or actual workplace violence occur. Employers may also want to consider any appropriate and legal pre-employment screening to reduce the number of personnel who could be prone to violent behavior.