Two Senate committees delayed action Tuesday afternoon on legislation aimed at allowing employees to store legally owned firearms in their cars on company parking lots.
After hearing testimony from proponents of the idea two weeks ago, the Senate’s Commerce and Judiciary committees hosted its opponents on Tuesday.
In the Commerce and Agriculture Committee, legislators are considering SB2992, which would prohibit “employment discrimination” based on a person’s “ownership, storage, transportation or possession of a firearm.” Its companion in the Judiciary Committee, SB3002, would prevent companies from banning the storage of guns in employees’ cars on their lots.
The legislation has brought about some friendly fire between gun owners and business interests, two groups that are traditionally pillars of the GOP constituency.
Both committees received a parade of business and university representatives opposing the bills on the grounds that it would impede their private property rights and diminish their ability to ensure the safety of employees and students.
Among those testifying before the committees were representatives from FedEx, Volkswagen and Bridgestone and the presidents of Belmont and Trevecca Nazarene universities, as well as Vanderbilt University’s police chief. In the Judiciary committee, so many individuals had come to testify in opposition to the bill that, when time ran out, committee chair Sen. Mae Beavers asked the remaining dissenters to stand up so they could at least be seen. Around half of the room rose to their feet.
Belmont University president Bob Fisher addressed the Commerce committee and said such legislation would introduce firearms where they haven’t been for years.
“In 12 years, I know of no shots ever fired on our campus,” he said. “There was one armed robbery, there was a gun drawn once in 12 years that I know of. And I want to keep it that way.”
In concluding his statement, he said, “I simply cannot logically connect how it could be any safer with untrained students or untrained employees having easy access to firearms.”
Nashville attorney and chairman of the Tennessee Chamber of Commerce and Industry Bill Ozier also spoke. He said he is often called upon by businesses before they fire or bring disciplinary action on an employee. He said the discrimination bill would create a new protected class of employees.
“Because of the wide range of employment discrimination laws – both federal laws and state laws – that most of these employers are subject to, the first thing we do when I get the call is to go down the list and say, ‘Do they fall in any of these protected categories,” Ozier said. “This bill would create another box for those employees to check.”
The testimony gave way to a lengthy back-and-forth between legislators and the bill’s opponents.
Sen. Mike Faulk, R-Church Hill, who is sponsoring both bills, challenged Ozier and others with hypothetical situations involving other objects an employee might keep in the car, such as a Bible. He also pressed them on their concern for employee safety on their way to and from work.
“Do you have any care for the safety of your employees after they leave your premises?” he said. “Or when they leave their home and before they get to your premises coming to work?”
Republican Sens. Beavers and Delores Gresham also raised the question of an employer’s liability in a case where an employee – who has been banned from keeping a firearm in his car – is attacked and injured in the company parking lot.
In the Judiciary committee, though the bill was technically different, many of the arguments were the same, revolving around the tension between the rights of private property owners and those of gun owners.
Mark Hogan, vice president of security for FedEx, said the company believes an employer’s right to decide what is allowed on its property trumps an individual’s right to carry a firearm onto that property. He repeated a common theme expressed throughout the hearings, that allowing guns in parking lots adds volatility to possible confrontations.
“FedEx should be allowed to continue to implement policies that are designed to protect our employees from irrational or heat-of-the-moment actions by their co-workers,” he said. “Allowing employees to have near, immediate access to firearms, at work, creates an element of risk that is unacceptable.”
Trevecca Nazarene University president Daniel Boone said that university security officials currently know who is supposed to have a gun on campus. If passed, he said, the bill would make it more difficult for security officials to make that determination and make it harder for them to ensure the safety of the student body.
Knoxville Republican Sen. Stacey Campfield presented the panel with a number of questions about the rights of property owners, including that of an employer’s liability in certain situations. Among them was the prospect of employers reserving the right to search a car on their lot. Ozier acknowledged the difference between a customer and employee in such a situation but said that, ultimately, parking on a company lot is a privilege, not a right, and that by parking on a company lot, an employee implicitly submits to the rules set by the employer.
Sen. Mike Bell, R-Riceville, asked Hogan if FedEx, which has property across the country, had encountered problems in any states that allow employees to store guns in their cars on company lots. Hogan said that he did not know of any problems in those states, but that FedEx had opposed those laws as well.