Whirlpool backs out of workplace gun ban suit, but doesn't lift ban
November 26, 2004
Wall Street Journal
In Oklahoma, a Ban On Guns Pits State
Against Big Firms
VALLIANT, Okla. -- In late summer of 2002, Steve Bastible put three bullets into a dying cow at his ranch, threw the emptied rifle behind the seat of his pickup and forgot about it.
A few weeks later, the rifle cost him his job of 23 years.
That Oct. 1, in a surprise search, Weyerhaeuser Co. sent gun-sniffing dogs into the parking lot of its paper mill here. Mr. Bastible and 11 other workers were fired after guns were found in their vehicles. The timber company said the weapons violated a new company policy that extended a longtime workplace gun ban to the parking area. The fired workers said they knew nothing of the new rule.
The firings outraged many in this wooded community in the foothills of the Ouachita Mountains. In rural Oklahoma, carrying a firearm in one's car is commonplace. "In Oklahoma, gun control is when you hit what you shoot at," says Jerry Ellis, a member of the state legislature.
Now, the dispute is reverberating beyond the borders of tiny Valliant, located in the southeast corner of the state. In response, the state legislature overwhelmingly passed a law giving Oklahomans the right to keep guns locked in their cars in parking lots. But just days before the law was to go into effect this month, several prominent companies with Oklahoma operations, including Whirlpool Corp. and ConocoPhillips sued to stop it. A federal judge put the law on hold pending a hearing.
Meanwhile, several of the paper-mill workers have filed wrongful-discharge lawsuits against Weyerhaeuser and its subcontractors, which employed the workers. "This is a heck of an injustice that needs to be fixed," says their Tulsa lawyer, Larry Johnson, 72 years old, who has spent a lifetime studying the second amendment.
On one side, companies are trying to keep guns away from the workplace, driven by real-life horror stories of disgruntled employees on the rampage, stalking the hallways and shooting down bosses and co-workers. On the other side are employees who argue that guns help keep law-abiding workers safer.
The debate transcends partisan politics. Nearly 90% of voters in the county are registered Democrats, and yet 66% of county voters cast ballots for George Bush for president, in part because they viewed him as more pro-gun.
The new law was sponsored by Mr. Ellis, a Democrat from McCurtain County. It passed unanimously in the Oklahoma Senate, and on a 92-4 vote in the House. "I just didn't think the state should be dictating weapons policy to property owners," says J. Mike Wilt, a Republican from Bartlesville who was among the four voting against the law.
Mr. Ellis, a former mill worker himself, counters: "These are good, hardworking, tax-paying, law-abiding citizens. I just wish these big companies could understand that these people are not a threat to anybody."
Guns are part of everyday life in McCurtain County, where many residents hunt and ranch, and houses are miles apart. In the local gun and pawn shop in the county seat of Idabel, worker David Brakebill spreads out a map on the counter and points to the green blotches representing vast expanses of tree-covered wilderness. "When you call the police," says Vicki Luna, an owner of the gun store, "they don't get there for 30 minutes -- if they can find your house."
The Weyerhaeuser paper mill has been the largest employer in town for more than 30 years, providing about 2,500 jobs in the area and contributing more than $55 million annually to the local economy in taxes, payroll and community donations, according to the company. The whole gun flap actually started with an apparent drug overdose at the plant. Plant manager Randy Nebel hired a security company to bring in four dogs to search for drugs and guns in the parking lot. The dogs didn't find any drugs but zeroed in on several vehicles containing firearms.
The company then ordered the workers to open the suspect cars so that they could be hand-searched. A dozen workers, four Weyerhaeuser employees and eight who worked for subcontractors, were suspended for having rifles, shotguns or handguns. A couple of days later, they were fired as part of Weyerhaeuser and its subcontractors' zero-tolerance policy for major safety violations, the companies say.
Jimmy "Red" Wyatt, a 45-year-old father of five who worked his way up from the factory floor to supervisor in his 22 years at the mill, says he often carried his rifle to scare off coyotes threatening the cattle he raises in his spare time. A shotgun also found was left over from bird hunting with his sons the day before.
Mr. Nebel says that firing Mr. Wyatt, a model worker, was difficult. But after clearing the parking lot of guns, "I believe the plant is safer," he said.
The plant manager said the new gun rule had been in place since January 2002 after reversing a previous policy that had allowed workers to leave their guns locked in their cars. The company says it told workers in writing and during "team meetings" of the new policy. "It was well known this would be dealt with severely," said Mr. Nebel. Mr. Wyatt and the other fired workers say they never were told of the changed rule.
Hearing of the case, the National Rifle Association referred the workers to Mr. Johnson, a longtime gun-rights advocate. Mr. Johnson contacted Mr. Ellis, and together they crafted what was to become the new law. In a recent brief supporting the law, Mr. Johnson sprinkled his legal arguments with historic quotes from poets and philosophers. "I even quoted Christ," he says, reciting a snippet from the Book of Luke in which Jesus admonishes his followers, "Let him who has no sword sell his mantle and buy one."
In fighting the law, Oklahoma companies are walking through a community-relations minefield in what is known as an NRA stronghold. The Oklahoma State Chamber of Commerce normally supports the NRA. But it says it joined the lawsuit opposing the law because it believes companies should be able to exclude weapons from their premises.
"Things happen at work that make people mad: They don't get a raise," explains attorney David Strecker, who is representing the chamber. "If a gun is handy, someone might use it, and that's just something employers don't want to risk."
In a surprise move at a hearing on the law in U.S. Chief District Judge Sven Erik Holmes's Tulsa court Tuesday, Whirlpool withdrew from the case, leaving ConocoPhillips and Williams Cos. to lead the lawsuit. Mr. Johnson, who has joined Rep. Ellis in calling for a boycott of Whirlpool and the other companies involved in the lawsuit, said he believes Whirlpool succumbed to worries it might be punished by pro-gun rights consumers. "People are taking it very, very seriously," he said. "Look at how politicians have suffered when they get on the wrong side of this issue."
Whirlpool responds that it had only been seeking clarification on the law, and that it believes a recent brief by the Oklahoma attorney general gives them the green light to maintain their no-gun policy, resolving their concern. A spokesman for Attorney General Drew Edmonson, however, said he didn't agree with that interpretation. Neither did Steven Broussard, the Tulsa attorney for Conoco and Williams. "We feel that nothing has changed and it's very important for us to get a resolution of this," Mr. Broussard said.
The law remains on hold as the legal dispute unfolds in court.
Commentary: One thing that is missing from this story is the fact that when businesses are allowed to ban firearms from employees personal automobiles parked on company property, they enact a de facto ban on self-defense while traveling to and from work.
The idea that enforcing a ban on guns from private employee vehicles is going to stop violent rampages is ludicrous. Recently, a former employee of ConAgra Foods walked right past several "no-guns" signs on his way into the plant to begin shooting defenseless co-workers (click photo for complete story). And even more recently in St. Louis, a disgruntled former employee exploited the defenselessness of a business by firing at least five times before going outside to a van to reload. Still unopposed, he was then able to walk back inside to fire again.
As mentioned in the original story about this lawsuit from FOX News, Kentucky law does not allow businesses to dictate what CHL-holders keep in their vehicles while on business property. Did these companies' lawyers bother to call the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce before creating this policy or filing this suit? Did they ask if there have been problems with liability or insurance issues, or with compliance to OSHA standards, or with ANYTHING at all to do with the Kentucky parking lot exception?
Apparently not. But back when OFCC was fighting for the parking lot exemption during the lobbying phase of HB12, we did:
Mr. Jeff Alan, Director of Legislative Education in the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce, told OFCC in 2003 that they did not oppose this language when the bill was being considered. Further, he said that in the 7 years since the law was passed, they haven't had EVEN ONE report of a business having troubles with the parking lot exemption. What's more, there is no history of any litigation on the issue. Mr. Jim Ford, Director of Business Education, travels around the state to businesses large and small. He concurred with Mr. Alan.
The Ohio Chamber of Commerce and Ohio Manufacturer's Association fought for the removal of a parking lot exemption like Kentucky's provision in HB12. Senator Steve Stivers backed the successful attempt to remove the provision in the Senate Committee on Criminal Justice, which was chaired by Sen. Steve Austria. But the thing to keep in mind here is this: Kentucky's law, unlike Ohio's, does not give KY businesses the blanket immunity that HB12 does. So what did Ohio's business lobbyists have to fear? Nothing.
On the other hand, disarmed employees and customers, it would appear, have a great deal to fear if businesses obstruct their right to self-defense, even in their personal automobile. When businesses disarm law-abiding customers in hopes of deterring violent criminals, when employers prohibit their workers from protecting themselves while traveling to and from work, and when a company sues to prevent employees from protecting themselves even when traveling to and from work, is it any wonder that the FBI says workplace killings are the fastest-growing homicide trend in the country?
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