Companies Fight Law Allowing Guns at Work

If you and your co-workers could bring guns to work and keep them nearby, would that make you safer?

That is the idea behind an Oklahoma law that went into effect Nov. 1, requiring employers to allow their workers to bring guns to work and leave them in their locked cars in the parking lot.

Three companies -- Whirlpool, The Williams Cos. and ConocoPhillips -- filed suit in U.S. District Court in Tulsa, claiming the law is unconstitutional because it violates their property rights. Whirlpool has since dropped out of the suit.

According to the Oct. 29 filing by Williams' and ConocoPhillips' attorneys, the new law violates the companies' rights under the U.S. and Oklahoma constitutions because it "effectively takes or damages their real property and/or property rights without due process of law."

The law is written as a series of amendments to the Oklahoma Firearms Act and the Oklahoma Self-Defense Act, and says in part that "no person, property owner, tenant, employer or business entity shall be permitted to establish any policy or rule that has the effect of prohibiting any person, except a convicted felon, from transporting and storing firearms in a locked vehicle on any property set aside for any vehicle."

But one of the co-authors of the bill, state Sen. Frank Shurden, a Democrat, said that what was at issue was the safety of the workers, especially those who travel to or from work at off hours.

Violence in the workplace is an issue that has periodically gained national attention, with mass killings that draw intense media coverage. But those crimes are relatively uncommon, and according to an FBI report issued in the spring of this year, workplace violence is not.

A Justice Department study cited in the FBI report put the number of "violent victimizations" suffered in the workplace at more than 1.7 million per year, with the cost to businesses running "into many billions of dollars."

Of the roughly 900 workplace killings each year, nearly 80 percent are committed by people who have no connection with the business, usually during the course of a robbery, according to the government report. The rest are roughly evenly divided between those committed by those for who a company provides service, by an employee or former employee against co-workers, or by someone who has a personal relationship with an employee.

Because of these figures, Paul Viollis, the president of Risk Control Strategies, said a law that would bar employers from banning guns anywhere on company property is "just blatantly irresponsible."

"According to OSHA [the Federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration], employers have a duty to create a safe workplace, a duty, not a right," Viollis said. "Guns are the weapon of choice in workplace violence. How is it going to make a safer work environment to have less than professionally trained people bringing firearms to work?"

To gun rights advocates, though, the law represents a victory for people's rights to protect themselves. They say it may have less to do with what happens on the job than it does with what could happen on the trip to or from work.

"Looking at it from a practical perspective, a commute to and from an individual's place of work is a large part of a person's daily life when they're away from their homes and they might need to protect themselves or their loved ones," said Andrew Arulanandam, a spokesman for the National Rifle Association.

"All law-abiding folks need a way of protecting themselves when they are away from home, especially if, say, their cars break down in some isolated place," he added.

The property rights that the companies are concerned about are important to the NRA, he said, but the right of people to be able to protect themselves is more important.

The companies can continue to ban employees from keeping weapons in their locked cars at work, because U.S. Chief District Judge Sven Erik Holmes extended the restraining order he issued on Oct. 29, blocking enforcement while the case is argued. A state court now must decide whether the law is a criminal or civil statute.

Lawyers for the two sides must submit requests to either the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals or the Oklahoma Supreme Court by Dec. 14, seeking a ruling on the nature of the law, Holmes ruled.

Holmes' ruling pertains to the constitutional issues raised in the arguments that have already been filed. The companies named Oklahoma Gov. Brad Henry and Attorney General Drew Hudson, saying they would be the ones enforcing the law, but if it is not a criminal statute, the officials answered in their response, they should not have been named.