Rights, safety in debate over guns-at-work bill

Former factory manager Phil Pflum says he’ll never forget the time a laid-off worker pointed a gun at his car.

Pflum, now an Indiana state representative, told his fellow lawmakers about the experience to explain why he cast the sole committee vote against a bill that would prohibit employers from banning guns in people’s locked cars on company property. The full House could take action on the bill as early as Monday, the panel’s chairman said.

The House Natural Resources Committee voted 10-1 to advance the bill last week amid strong support from the National Rifle Association and opposition from business interests and domestic violence advocates.

Pflum, a Democrat from the eastern Indiana town of Milton, likely realized he wasn’t going to sway the committee’s decision. But his voice quivered as he described how in the 1980s he had to tell hundreds of workers at a Richmond factory that they were going to lose their jobs, and how when he drove up alongside one of those workers later the man pointed a gun at his car before Pflum sped away.

"This bill scares the hell out of me," Pflum said.

"What if he’d had a weapon on the company property?" he asked.

Lobbyists from the Indiana Chamber of Commerce, Indiana Manufacturers Association and the Domestic Violence Network voiced concerns during a committee hearing about the potential for workplace shootings such as one Jan. 7 in St. Louis in which a man killed three co-workers and himself. Business lobbyists fought for and won an amendment that would protect companies from being sued if they follow the law and someone is harmed.

But supporters stressed that the bill would only allow people with the legal right to carry a weapon to bring it to work — and then only as far as the parking lot, where it must remain locked in their car.

"I don’t feel threatened if my employees rightfully possess a weapon and they have it in their car with their door locked," said Rep. Sean Eberhart, R-Shelbyville, who owns a tool rental business.

A spokeswoman for the NRA, which has successfully pushed for similar laws in 11 states, said legislators need to use "common sense" in drawing the line between gun rights and business liability.

"Constitutional rights and the fundamental right to protect yourself trumps that," Rachel Parsons said.

Corporate policies against firearms on business property tread on the Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms, the NRA says, and hunters can be victims.

Parsons said an Oklahoma man had been fired for having a gun in his locked car on the employee parking lot.

"He was simply going hunting before work," she said. "He was a law-abiding person and he was minding his own business." Oklahoma later passed a law protecting employees’ gun rights.

Parsons also said workers who work late hours should be able to keep a gun in their car to protect themselves.

Opponents cited a university study which found that workplaces where guns were permitted were five to seven times more likely to be the site of a workplace homicide.

The bill’s author, committee Chairman Robert Bischoff, D-Greendale, acknowledged that violence was a concern but added, "Anything you do, there’s always ‘What if?’"

Opponents from business groups said the bill’s supporters were misreading the Second Amendment, which they said affects only the government, not private entities, and that legislators were placing gun owners’ rights ahead of business owners’ rights to control their own property.

"If you pass this bill, you will have chosen to decide that one right trumps another right," said Manufacturers Association lobbyist Ed Roberts.

Constitutional scholars say opponents are partially correct — the Second Amendment doesn’t apply to private businesses, but states have the power to pass laws that go beyond what the Constitution requires.

"The Second Amendment does not require this legislation, though it certainly does not prohibit the state from doing this either," said John Lawrence Hill, a professor at the Indiana University School of Law in Indianapolis.

Critics said the bill’s original language was too loose, and the panel did approve amendments that would allow domestic violence shelters and homeowners to prohibit firearms on their property.

The bill also would exempt refineries and certain facilities such as chemical plants that must register under anti-terrorism regulations.

A state Senate committee has approved a similar bill.

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