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What's next for guns at work

March 19, 2010

Beginning July 1, employees will be able to bring guns to work in Indiana. Now what?

Fallout will emerge on two tracks, predicts Indianapolis attorney Paul Sinclair. The vast majority of employers will figure out how to accommodate the statute Gov. Mitch Daniels signed this week and go on with their business. And a few employers might challenge it in court.

Indiana is the 13th state to adopt legislation allowing employees to keep guns in locked vehicles– the purpose, contended the National Rifle Association, being to allow workers to defend themselves on their way to and from jobs.

The movement started in Oklahoma after some workers were fired for leaving guns in their vehicles on company property during hunting season. The resulting Oklahoma guns-at-work statute was upheld last year by the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals, which noted the Occupational Safety and Health Administration didn’t regard the law as conflicting with safe workplace provisions.

The Indiana statute sailed through both legislative chambers over howls from business groups and such major employers as Eli Lilly and Co. and Cummins. And days before Daniels applied his signature, an Indiana Department of Workforce Development worker shot up a Portage branch office after getting an unfavorable performance review.

In a statement, Daniels said he inked the legislation because of clear gun-rights language in federal and state constitutions, and the “overwhelming consensus” in the House and Senate. However, he added that the General Assembly might consider ironing out ambiguities to prevent unnecessary litigation.

Sinclair agrees that ambiguity could give rise to lawsuits. The main flashpoint would likely be exceptions written into the statute—“child caring institutions,” for example. Just what is “child caring?” he asks rhetorically. Is a library exempted when school children arrive during a field trip?

Employers will try to wriggle into exemptions that also include domestic violence shelters and some public utilities, among others, Sinclair says.

Challenging the statute in court would be so expensive that, realistically, only the largest companies would try. The cost of getting an injunction to put the law on hold could cost $50,000 in legal fees, he says, and if the process wended its way through appeals, the cost could easily shoot to several hundred thousand dollars.

“It’s much more practical for employers to try to comply with this rather than put all their eggs in one basket to challenge it,” he says.

However, the statute also has loopholes. Here’s just one: What if an employer demands that all workers with guns in vehicles surrender the keys while they’re at work? The statute wouldn’t appear to prevent that so long as the employer didn’t discriminate among the workers with guns.

The issue is a tough one for Sinclair, personally. Asked if he would have signed the bill, he defers, saying he hadn’t attended all of the hearings or heard all of the testimony.

On the one hand, Sinclair, who owns guns, is sympathetic to the argument Daniels made on Second Amendment grounds. On the other, he’s concerned about eroding property rights.

“There is a difficult balance struck here,” Sinclair says.

What about you? How do you feel about the new statute, and how do you feel about guns on workplace property?

Any thoughts on how employers should respond?

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