Surging Gun Sales Could Soon Become a Workplace Concern
The COVID-19 pandemic, economic instability, and protests against racial injustice have fueled gun buying, and some experts are concerned it could result in gun violence in the workplace.
Through September, the FBI had conducted more background checks on would-be gun buyers—28.82 million—than it ever has in an entire year. The previous annual record was 28.36 million, set in 2019. Additionally, 15.1 million weapons were sold in the U.S. in the first nine months of this year, which is more than the total number of guns sold in all of 2019, The New York Times reports.
“So often weapons find their way into the brick-and-mortar workplace,” says Ty Smith, founder of CommSafe AI, a San Diego-based technology company focused on conflict and violence prevention. “A whole lot of people have armed themselves over the past 10 months.”
Meanwhile, the pandemic and civil unrest have also exacerbated stress, mental health issues, domestic violence, child abuse, and suicide.
Smith is concerned “all of this…is going to come back into the workplace,” particularly as more employees who have been working remotely return to the office.
Jonathan Hancock, an employment lawyer with Baker Donelson in Memphis, Tennessee, says he hasn’t yet fielded any new concerns about guns at work from his clients, but “the spike in gun sales could be a sign there are issues coming that just have not surfaced yet.”
Guns at the Forefront
Guns have already taken center stage in Michigan, as armed protesters entered the state Capitol this spring and Democratic legislators began trying to ban firearms from their workplace. Citing a recently revealed plot to kidnap Governor Gretchen Whitmer, House Minority Leader Christine Greig wrote a letter to Speaker of the House Lee Chatfield stating, “The Legislature has long had an interest in monitoring, investigating, and ensuring workplace safety for all employees in this state. Surely, Mr. Speaker, you don’t believe that the Legislature intended our own workplace to be held to a laxer standard?” In the letter, Greig pointed to the Michigan Occupational Safety and Health Act, which requires employers to ensure that a workplace is free from hazards that are likely to cause injury or death to employees.
Workplace shootings, combined with the mishmash of state and local gun laws, have left many employers grappling with how to deal with guns in the workplace.
“There’s no Second Amendment right to take your firearms into a private place of business,” says Jake Charles, executive director of the Duke Center for Firearms Law at Duke University.
While some see guns as a means of protection if an act of violence is threatened or committed, others see them as a tragedy waiting to happen.
Supporting Guns at Work
When potential new employees interview for a job at KnowBe4, which trains companies on information technology security practices, they’re told upfront that employees who have secured concealed weapons permits can bring their guns to work.
“They have to be comfortable with our culture,” says Erika Lance, KnowBe4’s senior vice president of people operations. “It’s a very different and a very radical policy compared to a lot of companies.”
KnowBe4 has about 800 employees at its Clearwater, Florida, headquarters, and more than 100 have concealed carry permits, says Lance, who brings her own gun to work some days.
Employees have been allowed to bring guns to the workplace since the company’s inception almost a decade ago, and the policy is outlined in the employee handbook, Lance says. If an employee has a concealed carry permit, he or she must bring it to the human resources department, where it’s scanned and put in the individual’s file.
The Clearwater Police Department is aware of the company’s policy, Lance says, and KnowBe4 employees have annual trainings with the police department on topics such as how to respond to an active shooter.
Lance says she feels safer because she and her coworkers are allowed to have guns in the workplace. As an HR professional for more than two decades, she has had to let workers go, and there have been times when she’s wondered, “If they walk out the door, are they going to try to walk back in again?”
KnowBe4 employees are prohibited from showing their guns in the workplace. “I would only pull it out if there was an active shooter situation,” she says.
A Means of Protection
In Polk County, Florida, the county government is working with the local sheriff’s office to screen and train chosen county employees to carry firearms so they can provide a first line of defense against gun violence in certain county buildings.
The May 2019 shooting in Virginia Beach, Virginia, in which a longtime city engineer killed a dozen people at a municipal building, rang alarm bells for Polk County officials. “That’s the one that really brought it to light,” says county manager Bill Beasley. County officials began to ask whether more needed to be done at local government levels to help protect both employees and members of the public who come to buildings owned by the county.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), there were 458 workplace homicides in 2017, and three-quarters of those were shootings. Of the workplace homicides, 77 were committed by employees. The largest number of homicides occurred during robberies.
The number of workplace homicides has fluctuated between 400 and 500 in recent years, according to the BLS.
Polk County employees who have gone through screening and training under a program known as the Workplace Marshal Plan “will be well-equipped to deal with any situation that might arise,” Beasley says. Polk County, with a population of about 700,000, is located between Tampa and Orlando.
The decision by Polk County commissioners late last year to begin the program, which allows selected employees to carry a concealed firearm, is a different approach from many organizations around the country. “Generally speaking, the inclination of businesses is to not allow people to carry guns at the workplace,” says Robert Spitzer, chair of the political science department at the State University of New York (SUNY) Cortland and author of five books on gun control. “It’s a pretty uniform standard.”
The Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has no specific standards regarding the prevention of violence in the workplace. However, OSHA’s general duty clause requires employers to provide a workplace that’s designed to keep employees safe, says Hancock at Baker Donelson.
Workplace Marshal Plan
The Polk County workplace marshal plan is patterned after the Guardian Program that allows armed teachers and other personnel to help protect Florida schools. The state approved the Guardian Program following the 2018 mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida., which resulted in 17 fatalities.
County employees who volunteer to be part of the marshal plan must possess a permit to carry a concealed handgun and must undergo in-depth background testing, drug testing, and psychological testing. They then are referred to the Polk County Sheriff’s Office, which provides at least 132 hours of firearm safety and proficiency training, Beasley says. Additional training is required each quarter.
So far, about 20 to 25 employees have been trained, and another course is starting soon, Beasley says. The trained marshals will be located at six county buildings, including the county administration building and utility department headquarters.
If a workplace violence situation arises, Beasley says, “when I’m running out the back of the building, they’re supposed to be standing in the front lines.
“Never in my career had I thought I would see the day this was a valid option,” he adds.
But Hancock says the program raises a legal question: What if one of the employees shoots someone?
So far, Polk County government officials have received little pushback from employees or residents, Beasley says. “The public seems to be accepting of the idea that if [workplace violence prevention] is the new normal, this is what local government has to do.”
Apart from the marshal program, the county will continue to prohibit guns in the workplace, Beasley says. However, under Florida law, employers generally can’t prevent employees from keeping guns in their locked vehicles.
Parking Lot Laws
About half of all U.S. states have parking lot or “guns-in-trunks” laws, which require employers to allow their employees to keep their guns in their personal vehicles. In many cases, the firearms must be locked away and stored out of sight, the Center for Firearms Law’s Charles says.
But some organizations are pushing back against attempts to allow guns in workplace parking lots.
In Iowa, state lawmakers considered a bill earlier this year that would allow gun owners to leave their firearms locked in their vehicles on their employers’ property. While the bill didn’t advance, “we expect it will come up again,” says Mike Ralston, president of the Iowa Association of Business and Industry, which represents about 1,500 businesses in the state.
The association believes that “private property owners ought to be able to control our parking lots,” Ralston says, rather than having decisions imposed on them by the state.
Some of the association’s members are firearms companies that allow their employees to carry guns in their factories, he says. But many association members are concerned that allowing guns in vehicles at the workplace would make it easier for an angry employee to get a gun from their car, return to the workplace, and start shooting.
Ralston acknowledges that a disgruntled employee could go home to get a gun, then return to the business and open fire: “We are mindful of the consequences of something like what happened at the Molson Coors plant in Milwaukee,” in which a worker left the facility, got a gun, and then returned and began shooting, killing five.
In some states, employees must disclose to the employer that they have a gun in their private vehicle, while in other states an employer can’t ask if employees have guns in their cars because it’s considered an invasion of privacy, legal experts say.
Guns-in-trunks laws may apply not only to a company’s employees, but also to independent contractors, interns and volunteers connected to the organization, says Brian McPherson, a labor lawyer with Gunster in West Palm Beach, Florida.
At the same time, states may prohibit guns in vehicles at certain types of workplaces, such as schools and nuclear plants, he adds.
John Donohue, a Stanford University law professor, testified as an expert in a gun rights lawsuit against the University of Missouri. A law professor sued the university over a ban on guns on campus, saying the university’s prohibition on guns conflicted with a state law allowing guns in vehicles and with the professor’s Second and 14th Amendment rights to carry a gun because he had a valid concealed carry permit.
The judge in the case ruled late last year that the campus ban on guns had been in place for 65 years and “ending it would increase the danger to students,” Donohue says.
SUNY’s Spitzer maintains that keeping guns stored in vehicles can have other risks. “One consequence has been an upsurge in gun thefts,” he says.
To try to control access to those guns, some employers might consider setting up a separate parking lot monitored by a security guard for those vehicles that contain guns, Hancock says.
This summer the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the firing of an automobile-plant worker for having a loaded gun in his vehicle. The plaintiff, who worked for a contractor at Nissan North America’s plant in Canton, Mississippi, was found to have a loaded gun in his vehicle after being reported by an anonymous tipster. The vehicle was in a fenced parking lot. The worker was fired and filed a wrongful discharge claim against Nissan and the contractor.
While Mississippi has a guns-in-trunks law, there is an exception for private employers: They can prohibit guns in a vehicle in a parking lot with limited access. As a result, the appeals court upheld the employee’s dismissal.
At least 17 states have passed “red-flag” laws, which allow the courts to order the removal of guns from those who are deemed to be a danger to themselves or others. A similar, bipartisan measure has been introduced in Congress.
In some states, family members or law enforcement have to report a person’s disturbing behavior before his or her gun is removed, while other states allow coworkers and other community members to request that the guns be removed.
Many of the laws were approved in the wake of the Parkland high school shooting. Before the attack, dozens of calls had been made to law enforcement about the gunman, but no intervention was made that might have prevented the killings.
Employers and employees can play an important role in identifying coworkers who are struggling, Donohue says. “Workers get to see fellow employees and sometimes can see when someone is spiraling downward. Employers can be the first line of observation and pursue a red-flag option.”
Meanwhile, if there’s a workplace disagreement and an employee suddenly leaves in the middle of the workday, “it behooves the employer to find out what happened” and try to contact the employee who left, Gunster’s McPherson says.
By communicating with the employee who is upset and has left the premises, “it opens up the possibility of the employer intervening in a positive way,” he explains.
Jason Perry, president of Trident Shield, which provides security consulting and workplace violence training, says companies should adopt a “see something, say something” culture to try to deter violence at work. Proper channels should be put in place for employees to report concerns. And mechanisms should be implemented to make sure follow-through happens and the concerns are acted upon, Perry says.
He also recommends that larger businesses ban firearms at work and outsource their security to an outside company that has its own liability coverage.
If an employee or customer acts strangely or makes threats, an employer should ask the person to leave the premises. If the person refuses, the company should call law enforcement officials, says Gregory Hearing, a labor and employment lawyer with Gray Robinson in Tampa.
It should also call law enforcement if someone is told not to bring a gun to the workplace and continues to do so, he says. He cautions employers, “Don’t get involved with things involving guns.”
An employer might face a substantial liability claim if it knows someone is bringing a gun to the workplace and has a history of mental instability or of brandishing weapons.
In that case, the employer could be held liable for negligent hiring or retention and have to pay up, Hearing says. “Open up your checkbook and add a whole lot of zeros to the first number,” he says.
Donohue adds that when employers have some control over their workplace and a death or injury occurs through their negligence, they can be civilly liable for damages that occur. While gun rights activists may argue that the only person who is liable in a workplace shooting is the gunman, “the law is more expansive than that,” he says.
However, if employers are forced to allow guns on their premises because of parking lot laws, their liability is likely to be decreased if a gun is misused, Donohue continues. “Many companies wouldn’t allow guns on their premises if the state doesn’t mandate it.” On the other hand, if someone brings a gun into the workplace without an employer’s knowledge and an individual is harmed, an employer is not likely to be held liable, he says.
A lot of the contradictions and confusion are driven by politics, Hancock says, and employers often get caught up in it.
Different Jurisdictions, Different Laws
Because gun laws vary greatly from location to location, it's important for HR managers to know all the applicable laws in the jurisdictions where their organizations employ people, says Brian McPherson, a labor lawyer with Gunster in West Palm Beach, Florida.
That might mean an employer's policy regarding firearms will be different from place to place, based on the laws of the state, county, or city in which the company has locations.
Inside the workplace itself, an employer may or may not allow someone to bring a gun to work.
"There's no federal law restricting it or allowing it," says Gregory Hearing, a labor and employment lawyer with Gray Robinson in Tampa.
Depending on where a business is located, an employer may have the right to allow someone to bring a gun to work if the person meets permitting requirements, Hearing says. And some businesses, such as those in rural areas, might encourage an employee to carry a gun for protection.
On the other hand, "there are very, very few instances where an employer will tolerate an employee with a gun in a holster on their hip," says Jonathan Hancock, an employment lawyer with Baker Donelson in Memphis, Tennessee.
If a workplace wants to ban guns on its premises, some states have specific signage requirements that businesses must adhere to. In Tennessee, for example, a sign must show a handgun in a red circle with a line through it and state "no firearms allowed," Hancock says. The lettering must be a specific size.
Some states are in the process of developing nondiscrimination laws against firearm owners, so an employer could be at risk if it screens out an applicant who is a gun owner, says Jake Charles, executive director of the Duke Center for Firearms Law at Duke University.
Because of the varying gun laws, Charles urges employers to have a written policy regarding guns, "especially with the increased public carry of firearms."
There are more guns than people in the United States. In 2020, 400 million firearms were in circulation, while the U.S. population was 330 million, according to the Brookings Institution, a nonprofit public policy organization.
Ten states require a person to have a permit in order to purchase a firearm; three states require a person to have a license to own a firearm; two states require someone to complete a firearms safety course before purchasing a gun; and Washington, D.C., has a firearm registration law, according to the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence. Thirty-five states have a permit requirement in place if a person wants to carry a concealed weapon.
Susan Ladika is a freelance writer based in Tampa, Florida.
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