Guns in the trunk: worker right or workplace danger?

NRA and employers square off over Oklahoma law that allows the practice.

By , Staff writers of The Christian Science Monitor , Staff writers of The Christian Science Monitor

Jason Smith is in a tough spot. He works for a company he has been asked to boycott.

In an effort to keep weapons out of the workplace, his employer, ConocoPhillips, is challenging state law and has forbidden workers to leave guns in their cars in company parking lots. Now, the National Rifle Association (NRA) is encouraging gun owners to stop buying ConocoPhillips gasoline.

The boycott is the latest skirmish in an expanding battle over gun control. Now that many states allow citizens to carry concealed weapons, the NRA is pushing to eliminate remaining restrictions on where those guns can be taken. Gun-control groups - and some employers - are fighting back. The outcome could decide whether more states expand the rights of licensed owners to carry their guns where they want, despite recent evidence that workplace gun bans do lower risk.

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This issue is simmering in states across the country, says Stephen Halbrook, a Virginia lawyer who handles many Second Amendment cases. "But it is in brightest relief in Oklahoma."

That's because Oklahoma is one of only two states with statutes that specifically prohibit employers from banning weapons on their own property. (Kentucky is the other state.) ConocoPhillips and several other employers are challenging the 2003 Oklahoma law in federal court.

"ConocoPhillips supports the Second Amendment and respects the rights of law abiding citizens to own guns," the Houston-based oil company says in a written statement. "Our primary concern is the safety of all our employees. We are simply trying to provide a safe and secure working environment for our employees by keeping guns out of our facilities, including our company parking lots."

But gun-control opponents see the issue in constitutional terms.

"This case clearly goes to the very core of the freedom of Americans to own and travel with firearms in this country," says Wayne LaPierre, executive vice president of the NRA. If companies successfully block the Oklahoma law, "it could be a blueprint for thousands of corporations across this country to declare their parking lots anti-Second Amendment zones, which could in effect gut 'carry' laws in 38 states and restrict hunters on every hunting trip." Conceivably, gun owners would have nowhere to get a sandwich or fill up with gas, he adds.

The NRA will soon have billboards up in 10 to 15 states where ConocoPhillips has major interests, he says. The billboards will read: "ConocoPhillips is No Friend of the Second Amendment."

The campaign is part of a larger NRA push to expand the rights of gun owners to carry their firearms wherever they want, warns Peter Hamm of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, a gun-control group. He points to two bills backed by the NRA this past legislative session:

• In April, Arizona lawmakers passed a bill to allow concealed handguns in bars. Gov. Janet Napolitano vetoed the bill, angering the NRA but pleasing many owners of restaurants and bars in that state.

• That same month, Florida lawmakers passed a bill significantly broadening the circumstances under which a person is allowed to shoot another in self defense.

For their part, Mr. Smith and other ConocoPhillips employees in Oklahoma are supporting the NRA. "We are concerned about our rights, and very disturbed that the company is taking such steps," Smith says. In fact, there has been no violent incident involving a firearm at the Oklahoma refinery, he adds, even though "it's pretty common for guys to have weapons in their vehicles. That's just part of the culture here."

Shootings at refineries are not unheard of. In 1982, for instance, a man dismissed from his job at a Bridgeport, Texas, gasoline plant, returned with a rifle and killed his supervisor and wounded a co-worker, then died in a crash as he fled.

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.

Oklahoma's debate over guns at work got its start in 2002, when Weyerhaeuser employees were fired for having left firearms locked in their vehicles outside the plant. The state legislature, in overwhelming support of the workers, banned companies from restricting workers' ability to carry legal firearms in their vehicles.

Almost a dozen companies, including ConocoPhillips, filed a federal lawsuit to block that law. It is still tied up in court, but Mr. LaPierre says three of the companies have backed out after NRA pressure: "I think they realized that they had gotten into a gun crusade that has nothing to do with their bottom line, shareholder value, or the mission of their companies."

Others disagree.

ConocoPhillips has "an absolute duty to its shareholders to not back out," says Paul Finkelman, an expert in constitutional law at the University of Tulsa law school. "Employers have a right to restrict what their employees do on their premises." And they're still liable if someone is shot on their property, other legal experts note.

As recently as 1987, just six states had laws mandating that a gun owner be allowed a permit to carry a concealed weapon, says Ann Kaminstein, a lawyer and president of DV Initiative, a workplace- violence consulting firm in Concord, Mass. Today 33 states have such "shall-issue" laws, she says. And two, Alaska and Vermont, have no laws at all restricting concealed weapons.

The NRA's boycott against ConocoPhillips probably won't hurt the company much, experts say. Most of the gas stations carrying the company name are independently owned. But others say the end result could have a profound impact. "This kind of thing, if it became a trend, would definitely deter a lot of companies from adopting weapons-free policies," Ms. Kaminstein says.

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