So...when is it ok to be against private property rights?

Editor's Note: This article, originally published on our website August 29, 2005, is being published in response to the Cleveland Plain Dealer editorial "Ohio House puts gun rights over property rights," which falsely claims that "HB 233 would effectively yank the right of private property owners to prohibit those with concealed-handgun licenses from carrying concealed weapons onto their premises." The bill does no such thing. But since the question of the civil right to self-defense vs. private property rights comes up again and again, we hope this perspective will be of some help. Mr. Hanson wrote the article in 2005 after the NRA called for a boycott on ConocoPhillips after the energy company sued to stop an Oklahoma law giving Oklahomans the right to keep guns locked in their cars in parking lots.

By now, everyone is aware of the National Rifle Association’s call to boycott ConocoPhillips. This has, unfortunately, caused a crisis of conscience among gun owners, who tend to zealously support private property rights. Do we muster to the boycott banner, or do we sit this one out? What is a libertarian (I use the word “libertarian” in this article as shorthand for someone who zealously supports private property rights, not to frame this as an argument of a political party or ideology) to do?

On one side of the brain, we concern ourselves with the right of private property owners to do as they please with their property. If property owners want to exclude firearms from their property, that is their absolute right, correct? We certainly do not want the government telling us what to do on our own property. What could be more basic than that? This argument is a refrain we see time and again on various forums when gun owners are discussing the type of law that Oklahoma passed, or the type of law that allows a CHL to come into a business armed despite the business owner’s desires to the contrary.

On the other side of our brain, we concern ourselves with the right of individuals to be free and secure, and to bear arms to that end. Perhaps nothing is more central to our existence than the right and the ability to protect ourselves and our family from two legged predators. Nothing will send us into orbit quicker than reading about yet another knee jerk gun control scheme that will, like all other gun control, impact no one but the law abiding.

So, how is the gun owner to defuse this civil war of the brain? I would propose that the answer is really quite simple.

First, whether you view it as right, wrong or indifferent, government has already largely eliminated the right of private property owners to control the actions of others on their property. Perform the following thought experiment with me. You are driving up to the gates of ConocoPhillips to report to work tomorrow morning. At the ConocoPhillips property line, you notice that the dreaded no-gun signs have been replaced by one of the following signs:

“No Jews.” “No Negroes.” “No Muslims.” “No Republicans.” “No Kerry/Bush bumper stickers.” “No Bibles.” “Company approved books only.” “No unwed mothers or fornicators.” “No cripples.” “No Irish need apply.”

Of course, you will not see these signs on their fences, because ConocoPhillips would be sued back into the Stone Age, and the corporate officers would be in jail. Now, I know some of the core libertarians are out there thinking, “Well, ConocoPhillips should be able to do those things, too, as part of their private property rights.” However, I hope you will grant me the luxury of reality, and acknowledge that the thought experiment signs are not legally tolerable, and that is not going to change.

I propose that this issue is entirely misstated by those who cast it in a “private property rights versus gun rights” framework. The issue, properly framed, is that gun owners are simply seeking equal protection for the exercise of their rights. We are not asking for special treatment; we are asking for equal treatment. Since the property owner must already allow the exercise of those other rights, then they must allow the exercise of our rights. Only when the government decides to allow private property owners to exclude people based upon ANY factor, however objectionable, may the private property owner then exclude the gun owner. Under the status quo, gun owners are merely exercising rights and should be treated no different than any other person exercising a right.

As a final observation, this debate really is not about private property rights at all. The ConocoPhillips policy renders defenseless those who otherwise could defend themselves well beyond the corporate property boundary line. Any person with a concealed handgun license cannot carry to or from work as a result of the ConocoPhillips’ policy. Think about that, the impact of the ConocoPhillips policy is not just in their parking lot. It impacts individuals driving to work, from work and all stops between. The ConocoPhillips policy inflicts their beliefs upon all their workers, suppliers, vendors and the other private businesses involved in the “to and from” route of the workers.

Should ConocoPhillips be allowed to create an entire class of victims in the hour before or after work, when those people are on their way to or from, but nowhere near, ConocoPhillips’ property? That is the practical impact of their policy and the exercise of their “private property rights.” Is the government going to hold ConocoPhillips liable for the security of this victim class off ConocoPhillips property? Of course not.

In summary, the gun owner needs to properly frame this debate. The ConocoPhillips policy impacts people well beyond their corporate property line. Gun owners are not seeking special treatment and are not seeking to infringe upon ConocoPhillips’ private property rights. Rather, we are just asking for our rights to be treated equal with all other protected classes of rights – prohibit all or allow all, but do not allow ConocoPhillips to discriminate between the rights exercised.

What is the libertarian to do with the boycott? As for myself, I shall muster to the cause and sleep soundly at night for having done so.

Ken Hanson is a the Buckeye Firearms Association Legal Chair, and the author of “The Ohio Guide to Firearm Laws.”

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