Bills seek to legalize guns in employee vehicles: NRA, businesses on opposite sides of issue

By Amy Lane

LANSING — Bills that would prohibit employers from banning firearms in vehicles in their parking lots are raising red flags in the business community.

A growing number of business interests are registering opposition to the measures, which were approved by House and Senate committees late last fall and remain on the floors of both chambers.

“Employee safety is our number one priority and convenient gun access poses a threat to our employees and our facilities,” said Scott Simons, Detroit Edison Co. senior specialist, external relations.

Like other opponents, he said the bills attack employers’ rights to set terms and conditions of employment at their workplaces, and to control the use of their properties.

Supporters, which include the National Rifle Association, say the bills are about issues that include the U.S. Constitution’s Second Amendment, sportsman rights and self-defense.

“Our paramount interest is to preserve the right to self defense for law-abiding Americans, preserve the integrity of right-to-carry laws … and we also want to make sure that law-abiding gun owners, hunters and other sportsmen are able to enjoy a sport of their choice without being unnecessarily hassled,” said Andrew Arulanandam, director of public affairs at the Fairfax, Va.-based NRA, which is seeking to pass such bills in Michigan and other states.

But business, utility, health care and other interests are weighing in with strong opposition.

Jeff Holyfield, director of news and information at Consumers Energy Co., said the company takes seriously its workplace policy banning weapons throughout company property and in vehicles.

Such security measures are important not only to protect critical infrastructure like power plants, power control centers and natural-gas facilities, but also “to ensure the safety of our employees and our customers,” he said.

Holyfield said the utility opposes the legislation for several reasons, and “we’re engaged on this.”

U.S. Steel Corp., in a November letter to two legislative bill sponsors, said the company has “a number of policies to ensure a safe work environment” and one of them “is to prohibit our employees and guests from bringing guns to the workplace.”

The company said “Michigan law should not interfere with our ability to maintain a safe workplace.” And if the bills passed in the form they’re proposed, the U.S. Steel said it would need “to take costly measures to ensure a safe workplace,” such as building new parking lots outside of secured areas and transporting employees.

The Michigan Health & Hospital Association also cites workplace safety among its concerns with the bills.

“We would argue that employee safety is our number one priority, along with patients, and guns in the workplace increase the potential risks,” said David Finkbeiner, senior vice president of advocacy.

But the NRA’s Arulanandam said the lives and safety of employees are what such legislation addresses.

“We’re talking an issue of self-defense, about law-abiding workers being able to defend themselves and their loved ones, should the need arise,” he said.

Arulanandam said 12 states have passed such “parking lot” laws, and eight have legislation pending.

In Michigan, the bills are: Senate Bill 792, sponsored by Roger Kahn, R-Saginaw Township; Senate Bill 793, sponsored by Jim Barcia, D-Bay City; House Bill 5302, sponsored by Paul Opsommer, R-DeWitt; and House Bill 5303, sponsored by Joel Sheltrown, D-West Branch.

Senate Bill 792 and House Bill 5302 would generally require businesses, commercial enterprises, places of employment and government agencies to allow individuals to transport or store a legally possessed firearm or ammunition in a locked, privately owned vehicle in those entities’ parking areas.

The bills would prohibit employer policies to the contrary.

If an employer were to fire or penalize an employee for transporting or storing a firearm as the bills authorize, the employee could demand reinstatement and bring legal action if the employer does not reinstate them.

The bills provide that an employer, except in cases of gross negligence, would not be liable in a civil action for damages stemming from another person’s action involving firearms or ammunition stored in accordance with the bill.

Kahn said he introduced legislation after an individual in his district with a properly stored gun locked and unloaded in the trunk of his car was fired by his employer “because the vehicle was parked in a company parking lot.”

He said he’s “always been a Second Amendment guy, this is a Second Amendment issue,” but said he also recognizes others see a property-rights issue.

In a statement to Crain’s, Opsommer said the legislative package addresses “a growing problem where law-abiding people were not being allowed to transport and store legally owned firearms in their own private vehicles, even if they were locked up and kept in their trunk.

“We had people who were getting arrested for stopping to fill up at gas stations while they were on their way to shooting ranges, or women who had valid concealed pistol licenses that they had gotten because they had taken out a restraining order, yet they could not take their gun with them in the car as they traveled because they were not being allowed to store it in their trunk by some businesses.”

Amy Spray, resource policy manager at the Michigan United Conservation Clubs, which supports the legislation, said there are many hunters that like to go hunting as soon as possible after work, and they should have the ability to bring their hunting equipment with them and store it in their locked vehicles.

It’s a “matter of common sense and convenience,” she said.

But opponents don’t see it that way.

“These bills interfere with an employer or business owners’ ability to set terms or conditions of employment at the workplace, and control the conduct of business and activity on their private property,” said Jennifer Spike, director of human resource policy at the Michigan Manufacturers Association. “It’s a private property-rights issue to us.”

Michael Burns, executive vice president at the American Society of Employers in Southfield, said the organization estimates more than 50 percent of Michigan companies have formal, workplace no-weapons policies. The organization has not taken a position on the legislation.

The bills may prove nettlesome for lawmakers.

Senate Majority Leader Mike Bishop, R-Rochester, said the Senate bills are not a focus of the Senate agenda. “But I will tell you that there is strong support for the Second Amendment in the Senate, and we’re working our way through resolving the issues that have been raised,” he said.

House Speaker Andy Dillon, D-Redford Township, said in a statement that he supports the Second Amendment and understands “the desire of Michigan sportsmen and women who want to go hunting immediately after work.” But he’s also heard from many business owners and organizations opposed to the measures.

“At a time when we are working hard to keep our current employers and attract new ones to our state, I feel it’s best to work with all sides to reach a solution that respects both property owner and Second Amendment rights,” he said.