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Guns in the workplace: A safety issue or a nightmare?

About half of the states in the country allow employees to bring weapons to work. More states are mulling it.
About half of the states in the country allow employees to bring weapons to work. More states are mulling it.Ann Hermes / Christian Science Monitor/Getty

Bring your kid to work? Sure. Bring your dog to work? No problem. Bring your gun to work? In many states, packing heat on the job is a legally protected right.

A spate of state laws, many enacted recently, pit recreational shooters and gun-rights advocates against human resources and labor law professionals.

In more than half of states in the U.S., an employer is legally required to let employees bring their guns to work and keep them in their parked cars.

In Tennessee, where a new guns-at-work law went into effect in July, businesses including FedEx and Volkswagen voiced their opposition in testimony before state lawmakers last year. Similar legislation also kicked in over the summer in Illinois and Alabama, according to Patricia Hill, partner at the law firm of Smith, Gambrell & Russell, LLP. Other states are considering it.

Gun-control advocates say permitting firearms at the workplace gives disgruntled, possibly unhinged employees easy access to a deadly weapon. Gun-rights supporters say the provision protects workers who could be carjacked on a long commute. Business groups say the laws infringe on businesses' right to decide if they want a gun-free workplace. HR experts point out that the presence of guns, even if they're out in the parking lot and not next to the copier or coffee machine, create a liability and workplace security headache.

Workers can feel caught in the middle.

"To me, it just doesn’t make sense, because the only people who are going to follow it are law-abiding people. Criminals aren’t," said Michael Stefansen, an engineer for a manufacturing company in Newton, Conn. 

Stefansen's workplace is only a couple of miles from Sandy Hook Elementary School, where last year's mass shooting occurred. In the chaotic aftermath, erroneous reports of a second gunman prompted a lockdown that included Stefansen's workplace.

"You kind of feel vulnerable,” he said. “I have to say, being that we’re a gun-free company, it was a little uneasy knowing something could have been going on right around the corner."

Hill said the bills are being driven by “a combination of employees who do go hunting [and] employees who do feel unsafe when they leave the workplace,” she said.

Dudley Brown, executive vice president of the National Association for Gun Rights, characterized a gun in the parking lot as a tool for an employee's self-defense. "Why would someone who installs cable be denied the right to have another tool for their job? How about guys who work on a rural basis, where law enforcement is 30 minutes away at best?"

But the resulting laws pose challenges for businesses trying to comply with both the new gun rules and the requirement to keep workers safe on the job. “Employers are trying to identify the parameters of actions they should take or could take... The law is not well defined,” said Marion Walker, a labor and employment lawyer at Fisher & Phillips. “We’re going to see a lot of litigation about it, I would think.”

Legal issues aside, gun-control supporters argue that having firearms on the job erodes safety rather than bolstering it. "Guns kept in vehicles are parking lots are so easy accessible, easily retrievable," said Lindsay Nichols, an attorney at the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence.

Workplaces were five times as likely to experience a homicide when they allowed guns compared to those that prohibited all weapons, even after adjusting for other risk factors, according to a 2005 workplace study by the University of North Carolina.

According to January data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, just over 550 people are killed every year, on average, in work-related homicides (which includes guns as well as other weapons). In 2010, more than 10 percent of all workplace fatalities were homicides, 78 percent of which were shootings. That year, the most recent for which the BLS has data, 405 people were shot and killed at work.

“I wasn’t targeted. I was just in the wrong place at the wrong time,” said Nichole Hampton, a human resources professional in Phoenix. She was injured earlier this year when a legal dispute in her office building spilled out into the parking lot. Hampton was shot in the hand and the gunman, who later took his own life, killed his two intended victims.

A slammed door or a child’s shriek echoing in the lobby is still jarring, Hampton said. “It’s been 10 months and it’s still with us… It completely changed my thought process — at any point in time, somebody could become irate or have a gun.”

“There are times you see violent behavior from people you never anticipate,” said Amy Letke, founder of consulting firm Integrity HR. “You can’t anticipate everything.”

Letke said these laws put pressure on supervisors to recognize red flags that could escalate to violence, without infringing on employees’ right to privacy. “The gun laws have created for us and our clients a source of frustration," she said. "You’ve got to balance that right to bear arms with the safety of the workers and the workplace."

"We’re not particularly fond of state or federal mandates, regardless of what the issue is," said Bob Carragher, senior adviser for state affairs at the Society for Human Resource Management. "There is a concern always about guns or access to a gun in or near the workplace, but the real concern we have is an employer’s right to decide what policies to implement in the workplace are infringed by these laws."

“It’s difficult to balance the rights of the business owner, in this case, with the rights of a citizen,” Brown acknowledged. “If you really consider the second amendment as a property right… the property right to own a gun is the same as a property right for a business owner to decide what happens on their property.”

Companies in more states could confront this issue in the future. Legislators in Pennsylvania, South Carolina and West Virginia are considering similar bills.

There’s no guarantee any or all will become law at this point, since the bills are at fairly early stages in their respective states, said Smith, Gambrell & Russell, LLP attorney Nicholas Andrews. He pointed out that pro-gun sentiment is high in West Virginia, where six other gun-related pieces of legislation have been proposed this session.

“I see both sides of the coin even after what happened to me,” Hampton said. “You put the gun into the wrong hands, your whole protectiveness theory is blown out of the water. I’m not on one side or the other. It’s a difficult issue.”