Legislature and Workplace Safety and Government & Economic Development and Workplace Issues

Firearm advocates take aim at employers' restrictions

December 25, 2006

In the debate over workplace gun laws, you'd expect Don Davis--whose name is synonymous with firearms--to side with the Second Amendment crowd.

After all, he doesn't want to make money, folks. He just loves to sell guns. But Davis, the Don in Don's Guns, stands squarely with employers in the escalating conflict over companies' right to restrict workers' weapons.

"If you work for me and I tell you to leave your gun at home, you'd better leave it at home," Davis said.

Legislators in the upcoming session of the Indiana General Assembly are gearing up for a gunfight with high-caliber business implications. On one side are employees who prefer to pack heat during their commute. On the other are executives who see guns as a liability nightmare--even if they're locked in cars parked outside.

The Fairfax, Va.-based National Rifle Association says it's a high-stakes battle. According to the group, there are 65 million to 80 million gun owners in the United States, and 25 percent carry firearms in their vehicles.

For the last two years, State Rep. Eric Koch, R-Bedford, has introduced legislation aimed at killing Hoosier businesses' authority to restrict guns on their premises. Last spring, the idea passed out of the House 82-18 before stalling in the Senate. Koch plans to revive the measure in 2007.

Indiana is one of 18 states that has taken up the question of whether employees' guns can be kept in vehicles on work grounds, according to the Washington, D.C.-based Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. In 2005, laws allowing gun owners to keep their weapons on company parking lots passed in Oklahoma and Alaska.

"This isn't just a Republican issue," Koch said. "There are members of both caucuses in the House and Senate who feel strongly about this. There is a fundamental issue here whether someone can trump a constitutional right through a company policy. That underlying philosophical issue is where the rubber meets the road."

But some Republicans side with employers. State Sen. Tom Wyss, R-Fort Wayne and chairman of the Senate Homeland Security, Utilities and Public Policy Committee, thinks an employer's right to set rules in the workplace trumps the right to bear arms.

"It's a matter of safety for employees," Wyss said.

Koch became concerned about gun owners' workplace rights when constituents approached him. Some were hunters inconvenienced by the need to return home for their firearms. They'd prefer to drive straight to the duck blind as soon as they clock out.

Others feared danger during their commute. Gun owners who have to leave their weapons at home could be helpless against criminal assault if their cars break down in bad neighborhoods, said NRA spokeswoman Autumn Fogg.

"We believe people like nurses who work late shift hours should be able to ... protect themselves," she said. "No matter where you are, there's always that chance you'll become a victim of crime. And oftentimes, it's in your car."

"It's a ridiculous argument," shot back Davis, who became a local icon thanks to years of television ads for his gun store and shooting range, Don's Guns and Galleries Inc. Employers' property rights are paramount, Davis contends. If a company wants to establish rules to protect its workers or premises from firearms, he said, that's its business.

Even in the days of the Old West, Davis said, frontier towns often would require visitors to leave their guns with the sheriff.

"This seems like a very ridiculous problem they're saying we have," he said. "I can think of a lot more things to waste our money on debating in the Legislature."

It's not clear how many Hoosier employers have formal gun policies. But companies big and small are lining up to oppose Koch's push. The Indiana Chamber of Commerce calls the issue one of its top legislative priorities for the upcoming session.

"Even if [gun owners'] intentions are the best, in terms of maintaining a weapon in their vehicle, it doesn't mean that someone else who might become aware of that weapon wouldn't have access," said Bob Reilley, director of global security for Eli Lilly and Co.

Koch says legislators who side with gun owners are open to compromises that would help address employers' concerns. He said, for instance, that exemptions could protect businesses from liability for gun violence resulting from stolen weapons.

Some fear the gun legislation would enable disgruntled employees to commit acts of workplace violence more easily. The Indiana Department of Labor tracked 15 fatal workplace assaults in 2005, although it doesn't report how many involved guns. The Brady Campaign says 77 percent of workplace homicides are committed with firearms.

Employers fear a proliferation of guns locked in nearby car trunks would increase those deadly statistics. But no corporate policy is going to deter the mentally unstable, Koch said. A company might just as well write rules prohibiting knives or hand grenades.

"Those policies give a very false sense of security to anyone relying on them," he said.

Whatever the Legislature does, it's unlikely to permanently settle the debate. In the end, it may be up to the courts to decide whose rights are paramount--businesses or gun owners.

In the meantime, gun advocates will continue to make their case at the Statehouse.

"Gun owners are constituents, too. They want to let their representatives know they don't want these rights restricted," the NRA's Fogg said. "We're very pleased to have the legislation introduced again. We know our members in the state [of Indiana] feel the same way."

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