What Businesses Must Consider When Taking a Stance on Guns at Work

When determining whether to embrace a gun-free workplace or a workplace that allows employees to carry their gun at work, you must know the local and state gun laws, consider your workplace’s culture, and weigh the risks and potential benefits of both alternatives to develop a comprehensive written policy for your employees.

In today’s political and social climate, bringing up the issue of guns in conversation is going to elicit a broad spectrum of reactions depending on where you are and who you are communicating with. No matter how you personally feel about the issue, two things are clear: People are passionate about their stance on guns, and the debate between the different factions is not going to stop anytime soon. 

For employers, Human Resources professionals, and business leaders, addressing the issue of guns—and more importantly how to develop workplace policy around them—can be highly complex and very stressful. Intimidating as it may be to address an issue as politically and emotionally charged as guns, employers must develop a legally sound and comprehensive gun policy that provides their employees with a safe work environment every day and is aligned with the business’ strategy and values.

1. Banning Guns from the Workplace

State Laws That Protect Gun Rights at Work

Generally speaking, employers are free to implement policies they deem appropriate, subject to compliance with existing state and local laws. If an employer believes that completely banning guns in the workplace is the best policy route to take, it is critical that they complete a thorough review of the applicable state and local law prior to developing and implementing the gun-free policy. 

For example, many states around the country have implemented different versions of laws that effectively allow employees to store guns in their personal vehicle in an employer’s parking lot so long as the gun is out of sight and locked away. Utah went as far as enacting Utah Code 53-5a-102, which states, “unless specifically authorized by the legislature by statute, a local authority or state entity may not enact, establish, or enforce any ordinance, regulation, rule, or policy pertaining to firearms that in any way inhibits or restricts the possession or use of firearms on either public or private property.” This law gives government employees in Utah the right to carry a gun while at work. 

Developing the Policy and the Cultural Impact

If a complete ban on guns in the workplace is right for the employer after all applicable laws have been researched and properly considered, the employer must take the time to carefully develop a written policy that will be published to employees. The policy must be detailed and specific, while allowing the employer to have maximum discretion and authority in handling different situations when guns find their way to the workplace, especially as it pertains to disciplinary action and termination.

An equally important consideration with a complete ban on guns focuses on the cultural impact the policy will have on the business and its personnel. As mentioned, the issue of guns is complex and incendiary. A total and complete ban, legitimate as it may be, might be met with resistance by employees, especially if the policy is new or a substantial change from past practices. 

Employers must be able to effectively communicate the key advantages and benefits of the gun-free policy to their employees upon implementation. Openly explaining the reasons the employer is taking a gun-free position, the legal considerations factored into the decision, and why this works with the overall strategy of the business will ensure the gun-free policy is implemented smoothly. Even if an employer does all of those things, they must be ready to answer tough questions from employees who do not agree.

2. Allowing Guns in the Workplace

Sadly, it feels like mass shootings have become so pervasive in our society that reports of new shootings seem commonplace—in fact, tragically another one took place just last week at the Molson Coors Brewing Company Campus in Milwaukee. With shootings like this and the ones at the Henry Pratt Company in Aurora, IL, in February 2019 and Walmart in El Paso, TX, in August 2019, employees have every right to be concerned with their safety while working. Some people argue that allowing guns in the workplace can actually make the workplace safer by deterring would-be shooters from targeting workplaces with armed employees. Others argue that armed employees can help suppress an active shooter quickly and minimize injuries and fatalities before police arrive. While there may be some legitimacy to arguments about allowing guns in the workplace, there are also major considerations to take into account before allowing such a policy to take effect.

Policy Questions and Legal Considerations 

Developing a functional policy that allows guns in the workplace could prove to be more trouble than it is worth. Key business leaders, Human Resources professionals, and safety officers first must answer questions such as: 

  • Who gets to carry a gun at work? All concealed permit holders? HR and management only? 
  • What kind of training would be required for someone to carry a gun at work? 
  • Are insurance carriers willing to insure a business with this kind of policy? 

These are but a few of the difficult questions that must be clearly addressed by any employer. Perhaps even more so than any other policy that a company adopts, any decisions reached on these questions are sure to be met with controversy and scrutiny from employees. 

From a legal standpoint, there are well-established laws that address workplace safety and injuries. Most notably, the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA) establishes a clear duty for employers to maintain a safe workplace for employees. 29 U.S.C. § 654(a)(1) states, “Each employer shall furnish to each of his employees employment and a place of employment which are free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm to his employees.” States also have their own versions of OSHA, which must be considered, as well. Additionally, employees who are injured at work as a result of gun violence or mishaps may be entitled to compensation through their state’s Workers’ Compensation Act. Furthermore, employers may find themselves as defendants in lawsuits based on negligence, negligent entrustment, negligent hiring, negligent supervision, and premises liability theories. 

Guns Up (or Not)

When determining whether to embrace a gun-free workplace or a workplace that allows employees to carry their gun at work, you must know the local and state gun laws, consider your workplace’s culture, and weigh the risks and potential benefits of both alternatives to develop a comprehensive written policy for your employees. Most importantly, the safety of employees, customers, and other third parties should be your top concern.

Reginald W. Belcher is Practice Group manager for Turner Padget’s Workplace Litigation team in Columbia, SC. He is a Certified Specialist in Labor and Employment Law. He may be reached at: rbelcher@turnerpadget.com

William G. Oncken is a Labor and Employment associate in Turner Padget’s Myrtle Beach office. He may be reached at: woncken@turnerpadget.com.


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