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Workers and Employers Square Off Over Guns

Published in the Asbury Park Press

Ronald Honeycutt didn't hesitate.

The Pizza Hut driver had just finished dropping off a delivery when a man holding a gun approached him. Honeycutt wasn't about to become another robbery statistic. He grabbed the 9 mm handgun he always carries in his belt and shot the man more than 10 times, killing him.

Honeycutt faced no criminal charges, because prosecutors decided that he acted in self-defense. But the 39-year-old did lose his job: Carrying a gun violated Pizza Hut's no-weapons rule.

"It's not fair," says Honeycutt of Carmel, Ind., who has found another pizza-delivery job and continues to carry a gun. "There is a constitutional right to bear arms. If I'm going to die, I'd rather be killed defending myself."

Employers have long banned guns from the workplace as part of a violence-prevention strategy, but those policies are being tested as states pass laws making it easier for residents to carry concealed guns -- in some cases, crafting legislation that strikes down employers' attempts to keep guns off company property.

That means employers, who have traditionally shied away from such politically charged issues as gun control, are filing lawsuits to preserve their no-guns-allowed rules. Gun owners are also fighting back, boycotting companies that ban guns or fire workers for having them.

"Are we promoting open firefights in the parking lot?" says Paul Viollis, president of Risk Control Strategies in New York. "For legislation to permit employees and contractors to bring loaded firearms to work in vehicles is blatantly irresponsible."

In 35 states, practically any non-felon can obtain a license to carry a concealed weapon, according to the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. Those states require law enforcement officials to issue a license to carry a concealed weapon unless the person is in a prohibited category (generally, a convicted felon).

Employers can still generally ban guns inside the workplace as long as they post signs or take other clear steps stating that no weapons are allowed, legal experts say, but some legislators are calling for new laws that would take that ability away.

Gun bans challenged
The ability of companies to ban guns in their parking lots is coming under strong attack. In Oklahoma, a number of employers, including ConocoPhillips, are trying to overturn a law that allows employees to keep guns in locked vehicles on company property. The law was supposed to go into effect Nov. 1, but enforcement has been blocked as legal wrangling over the bill continues.

Gun-owner groups say employers who ban guns are stripping away workers' right to defend themselves on the job. Roughly 76 percent of all workplace homicides are robbery related, compared with 7 percent in the general population, according to an unpublished 2003 report by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH).

Having a gun is what Terry Pickle believes saved his life. In 2001, the owner of Pickle's Pawn Shop in Salt Lake City, was at work when two intruders broke in. They didn't ask questions or demand money. They simply walked in and opened fire.

But Pickle and his son, David, grabbed the loaded guns they carry and fired back, injuring one. The intruders fled, firing at a customer as they left. Pickle says he now knows firsthand that guns on the job can deter crime and keep employees safe. The two men were later caught and sentenced to prison, with one serving 10 years and the other serving 7 1/2 years.

"It saved our lives," Pickle says. "We would have been shot, probably dead, had we not had the ability to protect ourselves. They came in shooting. No words, nothing."

Employers assert rights
But others say laws that now allow guns in parking lots infringe on employers' property rights -- endangering all employees and creating a situation in which a potentially violent worker who gets upset could have easy access to a firearm.

In 2003, Doug Williams, an employee at a Lockheed Martin plant in Meridian, Miss., left the building, retrieved a shotgun and a semiautomatic rifle from his truck and returned, shooting 14 workers and killing six. The company bans guns on company property, but acquaintances said in news reports that Williams carried guns in his truck for target practice.

Impulse attacks, some employers say, is a major reason for banning guns on company property. In an average week in U.S. workplaces, one employee is killed and at least 25 are seriously injured in violent assaults by current or former co-workers, according to Department of Labor data. Most of those attacks involve guns.

"Do you want your mail guy or delivery guy carrying a loaded gun when he comes to the door?" asks Patty Sullivan, a Pizza Hut spokeswoman. "What if he's not happy with his tip?"

Sullivan says the company takes a number of steps to help ensure drivers' safety, including confirmation calls to new customers who place an order, limiting delivery hours in high-crime neighborhoods and training drivers never to go inside a home.

But as more states pass laws allowing residents to carry concealed guns, employers who haven't taken a stand regarding guns on the job are being forced to choose sides.

An Ohio law that went into effect in April in most cases allows employees to have concealed guns on company property except where explicitly banned by employers. If employers don't ban weapons, employees can bring guns onto the work site without informing their bosses.

"Employers have updated policies. Others have said, 'We don't want to raise the issue.' Businesses feel pressure from groups threatening boycotts (if they ban guns)," says Jackie Ford, an employment lawyer in Columbus.

At Marietta College in Marietta, Ohio, the law has brought discussion and debate.

"What if a plumber or truck delivery guy or Coke machine guy has a gun with them?" says Howard Korn, campus police chief. "The law is still being worked through. There's been a lot of discussion about this."

And in Minnesota, a 2003 law generally allows employers to ban guns from their buildings if they post signs and inform visitors of the ban, but they can't restrict employees with permits from having firearms in their cars in the parking lot. The law is currently not in effect because a judge in July declared it unconstitutional; an appeal is pending. Many companies have responded by posting no-guns-allowed signs.

"Employers don't want guns on their property. The concern is for the hothead employee who has an altercation and heads out to their vehicle, and they have a gun there," says Mary Krakow, an employment lawyer at Fredrikson & Byron in Minneapolis.

Courts backing employers
So far, some state courts are siding with employers who want to keep guns away.

At an America Online call center in Ogden, Utah, a security camera recorded three employees transferring guns from their cars. They were parked in a strip mall parking lot that included parking for AOL employees, lawyers say. The employees were off work and planned to go target shooting.

All three were fired by AOL for violating a workplace-violence-prevention policy that banned guns. The three fired workers sued, saying the policy violated their right to bear arms. Utah allows residents with a permit to carry a concealed firearm in a public place; you don't need a permit if it's not concealed.

But the Utah Supreme Court in July sided with AOL and said employers have the right to set policies banning guns in the workplace.

A matter of self-defense?
Even as employers wage legal battles to ban guns, some state legislators say companies should have less control. They support legislation that would allow employees with proper gun permits to carry concealed weapons on the job, not just into the parking lot.

"Companies are prohibiting the rights of employees to protect themselves," Democratic Oklahoma state Sen. Frank Shurden says. "I am in favor of letting a licensed permit holder carry the gun in the workplace. There's no reason to fear law-abiding citizens."

Gun-owner groups say the real risk is that workers unable to have guns could be attacked and have no means of self-defense.

About two-thirds of employers have written policies that specifically address weapons in the workplace, the reporting of violent incidents and threats of violence or violent acts, according to the Society for Human Resource Management. Large employers are more likely to have such policies.

Gun advocates also are pushing for laws that would make employers who ban guns liable if workers are injured in an attack on company property. "We're fighting back," says Alan Gottlieb of the Second Amendment Foundation in Bellevue, Wash. "Employers have rights. But if you don't allow an employee the means to protect themselves in the parking lot, there can be liability for the company."

Defending yourself
Employees such as Robert Wisniewski agree. The 53-year-old nurse in Brandon, Fla., says he started carrying a gun in his car after he was the victim of an attempted carjacking when driving home from work.

But he stopped carrying the gun, he said, because he works at a veterans' hospital where weapons aren't allowed in the parking lot.

"When I go to work and hit that parking lot, I have to go unarmed, even though my state says I have the right to have a gun," says Wisniewski, who is also a firearms instructor. "I'm not one of those gun nuts, but you should have a right to defend yourself."

 

 

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