- He changed his clothes and shined his boots,
And combed his dark hair down.
And his mother cried as he walked out
“Don’t take your guns to town.
Son, leave your guns at home.
Bill, don’t take your guns to town.”
- — Johnny Cash
It was quite a suprise for Steve Bastible to find a pink slip waiting for him one morning when he arrived at work at the Weyerhaeuser paper mill in the Ouachita Mountains of Oklahoma. He’d been a good worker, hadn’t been reprimanded or told he was in any trouble, but suddenly he was walking out the door. He wasn’t alone, there were 11 other employees with him, including an even more surprised Jimmy Wyatt, a supervisor at the mill who had been working there 22 years with an exemplary record.
There’s nothing more valuable to a company than a loyal, long-term employee who they can count on to show up at work and do a good job. Steve Bastible and Jimmy Wyatt were that kind of worker for Weyerhaueser. But as it turned out they had done something more unacceptable than missing a few days of work or having an extra beer and a two-hour lunch. They’d come to work with a gun in their truck. In an unannounced enhancement of their gun-free workplace policy, one Monday morning Weyerhaueser had security officers go through their parking lot with a gun sniffing dog to identify and search employee vehicles for firearms.
As it turned out, 12 workers had guns in their cars or trucks. Bastible’s storry was typical. The day before he’d been out on his ranch and he had to put down a sick cow with his rifle. He then threw the empty gun in the back of the cab of his pickup and forgot about it. Wyatt’s story was similar. He’d been bird hunting the day before and left his shotgun in the back of his truck. The rest of the employees had similar stories to tell. They carried guns in their trucks because of snakes and coyotes and all the other reasons that people in rural communities like to have firearms handy. Everyone does it. I carried a shotgun in my truck for six months because I kept running rattlesnakes in our driveway.
More importantly, it’s legal in many states, including Oklahoma, to carry a firearm in your vehicle. At the same time, it’s also legal for businesses to prohibit firearms in the workplace, but traditionally a person’s vehicle has been considered private property. Police even need a search warrant to search a car or truck. Yet at Weyerhaueser they had no hesitation to go from prohibiting guns in the workplace to searching parked vehicles without the permission of the owners or a search warrant, and then went ahead and fired people based on the guns they found. Even more outrageously, they didn’t give anyone advance warning that they would be doing this or that they had even extended their gun policy to the parking lot. Plus the employees were fired under a zero-tolerance policy with no regard to past work performance and no kind of warning or appeal option.
Not surprisingly, the fired workers are suing Weyerhaueser. In addition the Oklahoma State Legislature has passed a law protecting the right of employees to have guns in their vehicles. More troubling is that this isn’t an isolated case, and other companies involved in similar gun-related firings are joining Weyerhauser in filing suit against the state of Oklahoma to challenge the new law. These companies include ConocoPhillips, The Williams Company, The Nordam Group, and most ironically, Halliburton, whose Kellogg, Brown and Root subsidiary fired six employees for having guns at work. KBR is, of course, notorious for their extensive employment of professional mercenaries for overseas security work.
The argument used by Weyerhaueser and others for taking this action is that gun-related violence is one of the leading causes of workplace deaths. They cite the classic scenario of an irate employee “going postal” and settling grudges with supervisors or coworkers with a gun. But the truth is that these types of incidents, while widely publicized, are extremely rare – far less common than rapes and muggings in company parking lots – and none of the companies involved have ever had this kind of violent incident at any of their facilities.
This policy also faces the pesky little problem that it’s a complete violation of the Constitution. Not only of 2nd Amendment rights and related state laws which make it legal to carry a gun in your vehicle, but also of the 4th Amendment which protects people from having their cars searched, even by their employers. We often hear concern about the government or the police infringing on our Constitutional rights, but isn’t it really as bad or worse when those basic rights are violated by a private company?
Then there’s the simple common sense issue. Weyerhaueser and the other companies involved are all located in Oklahoma and Texas, states with large rural areas and where almost everyone has a gun. They employ oil workers, lumbermen and even mercenaries. These are people who live in the country, who are often hunters, and for whom guns are just a normal part of everyday life. They throw a gun in the back of their truck with no more thought than other people might leave their jogging shoes in the backseat. Expecting them not to have a gun in their car or truck is just unrealistic. State laws recognizes this and that creates an expectation that having a gun in your vehicle is legal. Plus there are plenty of legitimate reasons for having a gun in your vehicle, from self-defense to protection from coyotes and rattlesnakes – and these are a real danger in Texas and Oklahoma – to just having it handy if you want to stop in at the range after work. In fact, I’m currently carrying one in my truck because mountain lions have been driven into our neighborhood by highway construction. It’s just common sense, and expecting workers to take on unnecessary risk and deal with inconvenience for an arbitrary policy isn’t reasonable.
Not surprisingly, the National Rifle Association is stepping in on the side of the fired employees, with legal support and by organizing a boycott of the companies involved, particularly ConocoPhillips which is the only company which has retail outlets to picket and boycott. However, the boycott could go further. Stockholders in any of these companies could show their displeasure by selling their stock and investing in companies which are more sympathetic to workers rights. Even if you don’t care much about gun rights, the fact that a company is so irresponsible that it would fire good employees in this manner and reduce the quality of its workforce should be of concern to any stockholder.
If you’re concerned about your basic rights as a citizen this is an important issue to keep an eye on.
For more information take a look at these articles: CBS NEWS, New York Times, Wall Street Journal