Employers can forbid guns, a judge rules
by: DAVID HARPER World Staff Writer
10/6/2007 12:00 AM
He issues an injunction against an Oklahoma law.
A Tulsa federal judge has ruled against the state in its attempt to make sure employees can take guns onto their employers' property.
U.S. District Judge Terence Kern issued a permanent injunction against an Oklahoma law that would have kept employers from banning firearms at the workplace under certain conditions.
Kern decided in a 93-page written order issued Thursday that the amendments to the Oklahoma Firearms Act and the Oklahoma Self-Defense Act, which were to go into effect in 2004, conflict with a federal law meant to protect employees at their jobs.
Kern said the amendments "criminally prohibit an effective method of reducing gun-related workplace injuries and cannot co-exist with federal obligations and objectives."
Whirlpool, which later bowed out of the case, filed the lawsuit on Oct. 27, 2004, against Oklahoma Attorney General Drew Edmondson and Gov. Brad Henry.
The company challenged amendments to the state firearms and self-defense laws, which, had they gone into effect, would have prevented business owners from prohibiting guns inside locked vehicles on company property.
Whirlpool alleged that the legislation, which was to go into effect on Nov. 1, 2004, was unconstitutional and would undermine its policies to protect its workers.
Then-U.S. Chief District Judge Sven Erik Holmes issued a temporary restraining order on Oct. 29, 2004, which prevented the amendments from going into effect while the court further analyzed the issues.
In June 2005, Henry signed HB 1243, which exempts employers from legal liability if the use of a gun stored in a worker's vehicle results in injury or death at the work site because of the acts of a third party.
Whirlpool Corp. opted out of the Tulsa lawsuit in November 2004, and the Williams Cos. and ConocoPhillips took over as the primary plaintiffs.
Williams later dropped out of the lawsuit, leaving ConocoPhillips, which is based in Houston but employs more than 3,000 people in Oklahoma, to carry on with the case.
Tulsa attorney Steve Broussard, representing ConocoPhillips, said Friday that the company is pleased with the ruling.
Kern concluded that the proposed changes to Oklahoma law conflict with -- and are legally pre-empted by -- the 1970 Occupational Health and Safety Act.
That federal law requires employers to lessen hazards in their workplaces that could lead to death or serious bodily harm. The measure also encourages employers to prevent gun-related workplace injuries.
According to Kern's opinion, Alaska, Kansas, Minnesota and Kentucky have passed similar laws, while 13 states have rejected such measures.
Kern's opinion is the first to address the constitutionality of these laws, it says.
Rep. Jerry Ellis, D-Valliant, the principal author of the 2004 bill in the House, said Friday, "I guess federal judges can do anything they want. They don't have to worry about the voters."
He said disgruntled workers who shoot people in the workplace are going to do so no matter what laws are on the books.
Ellis said this week's decision increases the chances that someone will kill a lot of people before law enforcement personnel can respond to a 911 call.
"A hand on a gun is better than a cop on the phone," he said.
Ellis also said the ruling decreases the chances that employees can protect themselves on the way home from work.
Assistant Attorney General Sherry Todd said Friday that Kern's opinion likely will be appealed.
Roughly 1,000 people are killed at work each year, and guns are used in 80 percent of those deaths, according to the American Bar Association.
The ABA went on record earlier this year supporting the right of employers "to exclude from the workplace and other private property persons in possession of firearms or other weapons."
Proponents of such company policies point to a 2003 massacre in Mississippi.
In July 2003, a Lockheed Martin employee abruptly left a training session at the company's Meridian, Miss., plant and retrieved a shotgun and semiautomatic rifle from his truck in the employee parking lot.
He opened fire on co-workers, killing six and wounding eight. Afterward, authorities retrieved three more guns from his truck.
Brian Siebel, senior attorney at the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, was quoted by the Associated Press earlier this year as saying, "Unfortunately, this is an all-too-common event. A gun is available in the parking lot for an employee who may be unstable and who reaches a snapping point."
Meanwhile, the National Rifle Association has embarked on a state-by-state campaign to get legislatures to enact laws that require employers to allow their workers to bring guns onto company parking lots.
"When you get off work at 12 o'clock or 1 o'clock and you're driving home, you have the right to protect yourself if you're accosted on the highway," Wayne LaPierre, the NRA's executive vice president has said.
The amendments to Oklahoma law were made after forest products giant Weyerhauser Corp. fired eight employees in 2002 when guns were found in their cars on company lots in Oklahoma. Federal courts later upheld the firings.
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