The Tennessee Senate has approved passage of a bill that will permit public college and university employees and students holding handgun carry permits to transport or store a firearm or ammunition in their own vehicles on campus without facing any adverse or disciplinary action. The House has passed a nearly identical companion bill. If the Senate adopts the House version, the bill will go to Governor Bill Haslam, who likely will sign it into law.

Parking Lots Law

State Senator Brian Kelsey sponsored Senate Bill 1991 to fill a gap in the controversial “guns-in-parking lots” law that went into effect two years ago. That law, codified under the Tennessee criminal offenses statute, allows any holder of a proper Tennessee handgun carry permit to transport and store a firearm or firearm ammunition in his or her motor vehicle on any public or private parking area. The driver holding the permit must not park the vehicle in other locations where firearms are not permitted. While in the vehicle, the permit holder must keep the firearm or ammunition from ordinary observation. If not in the vehicle, the permit holder must not only keep the firearm or ammunition in the vehicle from ordinary observation, but must also lock the vehicle. In addition, the firearm or ammunition must be locked within the trunk, glove container, or container securely affixed to the motor vehicle. The permit holder must have lawful possession of the vehicle. Moreover, the permit holder cannot remove the firearm from the vehicle, manually carry it onto the premises, or discharge it. The permit holder cannot visibly show the firearm while in the vehicle, and may only transport or store a single firearm at a time. The law does not define the type of firearm that can be stored or transported in the vehicle as long as the driver holds a handgun permit.

Proposal

The proposed bill extends the protections and requirements of current law to students and employees of public colleges and universities. If a student or employee fails to comply with the requirements of the bill, the public postsecondary school may subject the person to appropriate adverse action or discipline.  

In July 2015, the Tennessee General Assembly passed another law expressly prohibiting employers from taking any adverse or disciplinary action, including discharge, against employees for transporting or storing a firearm or ammunition in the employers’ parking areas. That law further provided an employee with a cause of action against the employer for injunctive relief, economic damages, and reasonable attorney fees and costs in the court having jurisdiction in the county where the infraction occurred. The law is codified in the Tennessee employer and employee statute. The proposed campus gun bill contains no language giving students or employees holding carry permits any private right of action for alleged infringements on campuses.

The bill does not apply to private colleges or universities. By implication, students and employees of private institutions may continue to be subject to adverse or disciplinary actions for transporting and storing guns and ammunition on campus parking areas. Yet, as noted above, current law already broadly protects holders of carry permits while in or utilizing any public or private parking area. Unlike the guns-on-campus bill, current law gives employees a private right of action against their employers, public or private, who infringe their gun rights. This suggests that an employee may have a cause of action even under current law against an infringing public or private college or university employer. On the contrary, neither the current law nor the pending bill provides an aggrieved student attending a public or private college or university with a private right of action. This area of the gun laws may be further clarified by the legislature.

The current law was criticized for eroding the Tennessee employment-at-will doctrine. Despite that earlier opposition, the proposed bill has broad support and passed in the Senate by a 27-0 vote. The companion House bill passed 69-17. The only difference in the House bill is that it prohibits public postsecondary institutions from taking any adverse or disciplinary action against an employee or student “solely” for transporting or storing a firearm or ammunition in compliance with the law. If the Senate concurs with the House amendment, which is expected, the campus gun bill will be sent to the Governor for approval. If he signs the bill, it will be codified in the Tennessee education statute.

The bill does not expressly prohibit any particular postsecondary school written policy language. However, colleges and universities should revise their policies and handbooks to conform to the bill if it is passed into law, and they should provide the necessary training to their students and employees.