August 18, 2005

Guns at work

Should employers be able to prohibit guns at the workplace? ConocoPhillips thinks so and is challenging a recently enacted Oklahoma law to assert that right. In response, the NRA will be launching a national billboard advertising campaign calling for a boycott of ConocoPhillip's gas. The Christian Science Monitor recently discussed this issue in an excellent article entitled Worker right or workplace danger?

Many employers have policies prohibiting weapons in the workplace as part of their violence-prevention measures. Such policies often encompass the employer's total premises, including the parking lot. But at least a few states have laws that override such policies and affirm an employee's right to keep legal arms in their vehicles. Such laws are in force in Kentucky, Minnesota, and Oklahoma - and perhaps some other states.

Oklahoma's law is fairly recent, enacted in response to the firing of a dozen Weyerhaeuser employees in 2002 for having guns locked in their cars in the company parking lot. The OK law offers some protection for employers from liability should one of these guns be used in the commission of a crime, but it's not clear how the law could protect employers from workers compensation claims, such as those that resulted from worker injuries and deaths at Lockheed Martin. Workers comp does not usually come into play in cases of random violence - say a crazed killer walks in off the street and begins shooting employees - but it generally covers incidents that are found to be work-related, such as a disgruntled employee shooting co-workers.

Many employers think that policies against weapons make for a safer workplace. According to The Christian Science Monitor article:

"Although workplace homicides have declined dramatically in the past decade, weapons bans do appear to make workers safer, according to a recent study. Among hundreds of North Carolina companies surveyed, those that permitted guns to be brought to work saw a risk of homicide five times greater than companies that banned guns at work. "We saw a statistically significant increase in the chances of having a killing in any workplace that permitted guns," says Dana Loomis, professor of epidemiology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill."

Do employers have the right to establish policies on their private property? The NRA frames this as a Second Amendment issues, though others would see it as an issue of property rights. Jacob Sullum takes on the issue of The NRA vs. the Constitution in Reason Online:

If the NRA were simply objecting to ConocoPhillips' policy of barring guns from its parking lots, I would have no problem with the boycott. Instead, the NRA is objecting to the company's defense of its right to determine the gun policy on its own property. "We're going to make ConocoPhillips the example of what happens when a corporation takes away your Second Amendment rights," declares NRA Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre.

That statement makes no sense, since the Second Amendment is a restraint on government. The Second Amendment does not mean a private employer has to welcome guns in its parking lot, any more than the First Amendment means I have a right to give speeches in your living room.

LaPierre insists that "you can't say you support Second Amendment freedoms, then turn around and support anti-Second Amendment companies." I think you can, if you support property rights and understand what the Second Amendment really means.

With the recent passage of the Florida concealed weapons law, the defeat of the ban on certain assault weapons, and the protections from lawsuits recently enacted for the gun industry, it appears we are in an era where gun rights are expanding rather than retracting. How this will affect employers and their anti-violence policies remains to be seen. We'd love to hear your thoughts on these matters - we are particularly interested in the employer viewpoint.

| 8 Comments

8 Comments

I suppose next we won't have the right to refuse a guest in our home if he's carrying a gun.

I would love to see a response from the NRA to Jacob Sullum's statement: "The Second Amendment does not mean a private employer has to welcome guns in its parking lot, any more than the First Amendment means I have a right to give speeches in your living room." The position of the NRA seems a very warped interpretation of the Constitution. Can the NRA be viewed as a respectable institution when it behaves so irresponsibly and promotes such backwards logic?

Why do we need guns in our cars anyway? For the avid hunter who may see a deer or a hog on the side of the freeway and wants to get off a quick shot before work? I would think that if it's my property, my business, I should be able to make my rules as long as they don't discriminate against any protected class? Are gun toting employees a protected class?

It would seem to me that Lockheed and Conoco have a pretty strong case based on property rights, but another situation may not be so clear. Both of these apparently involve non-public areas, but what about privately owned areas that allow public access, like stores, restaurants and bars? The law often treats these the same as publicly owned spaces and it's conceivable a state may try to require them to allow anyone authorized to carry to do so on their premises. Could my grocery store continue to post a "No Firearms Allowed" sign as it does now? Could bars?

On the other hand, though, I have to wonder whether the Lockheed toll would have been higher or lower had another employee been able to pull a weapon from her purse and use it.

Unfortunately most chemical plants, refineries and paper mills are built in remote locations. Since they all run on a 24/7 schedule and workers travel to them any time day or night many workers carry a gun for self defense. Is this necessary? I say yes, since the police want come to some of these neighborhoods without backup. Also since the mill I work at is in the middle of hunting and fishing paradise many people brought their rifle to work, kept it safely locked in their car then went hunting when they got off work. Now we can't without risking termination if we are caught. I don't see where this policy is going to make the work place any safer. If a coworker makes his mind up to kill me, I doubt he will be worried about what the company thinks.

Thanks to all who have expressed viewpoints here.

Robert Reich had an opinion piece called Guns at Work on the same day that our blog was written.

He notes some statistics:
About 17 employees are murdered every week in American workplaces by someone with a gun, making gun-related killings the third-biggest safety hazard facing American workers -- right after vehicles and machines. In fact, gun-related homicide is the leading cause of death at the workplace for women.

He also has some advice for OSHA:
"Now here’s OSHA’s chance to side with corporate America and protect workers’ lives. OSHA ought to ban guns in every workplace across America -- thereby preempting the Oklahoma legislation and sending the National Rifle Association packing.

Once again, I am indebted to rawblogXport, where I found the Reich link - and many other good links, too!

Reich's 17 workplace shootings doesn't indicate as big a problem with permissive employers as he implies. NIOSH, the source of his figures, also has breakdowns that show more than half were in three occupational categories; public protective services (police and firefighters), cashiers and sales clerks, and drivers (taxis and trucks.) All of these would seem more likely to involve interlopers than fellow employees or customers.

You raise a good point, Doug - and your taking Reich to task on statistics puts me in mind of that old saying about three kinds of lies: lies, damn lies, and statistics. ;-)

It's true that most violent work deaths occur with robberies and in handling cash, and that the crazed coworker scenario is less common. Jordan Barab calls this unfashionable violence.

Your point is taken that many of these cases are not particularly pertinent to the discussion at hand.

On a side note, most injuries or deaths of this type would indeed be compensable even though they involve an interloper off the street because the injury would occur in the course and scope of employment, however.

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This page contains a single entry by Julie Ferguson published on August 18, 2005 11:02 AM.

Short takes: OSHA inspections, HR jargon, Trump blog, Ohio scandal was the previous entry in this blog.

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