Court Rules in Favor of an Employer's Right to Ban Firearms

Does a worker's constitutional right to bear firearms outweigh an employer's right to ban weapons on company property?

A federal appeals court said "no" in its Feb. 13 ruling on a lawsuit filed by eight men who were fired for having guns in the trunks of their cars on company property.

The 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver, ruling on the consolidated appeal of three separate lawsuits filed by eight former employees of Weyerhaeuser Co. or its contractors, points to the "Business Owner's Rights" section of the Oklahoma Self-Defense Act, which permits employers to regulate the possession of weapons on their property.

The eight terminated employees argued that the Business Owner's Rights passage violated their constitutional right to bear arms, but the appeals court disagreed.

In support of its conclusion that employers have the right to regulate weapons on company property, the appeals court cited the same constitutional passage that the eight terminated employees cited in their argument that their right to bear arms had been violated Article 2, Section 26 of the Oklahoma Constitution.

Article 2, Section 26 says: "The right of a citizen to keep and bear arms in defense of his home, person or property … shall never be prohibited; but nothing herein contained shall prevent the legislature from regulating the carrying of weapons."

The appeals court also pointed to a 1998 opinion of the Oklahoma Supreme Court that held "there is no absolute, common-law or constitutional right to carry loaded weapons at all times and in all circumstances."

Weyerhaeuser Officials Were Looking for Drugs

The eight employees were fired in 2002 after Weyerhaeuser security officials found firearms in the trunks of their cars, which were parked in the employee lot at the company's paper mill in Valliant, Okla.

Seven of the employees who were terminated worked for contractors six worked for Kellogg, Brown & Root and one worked for Kenny Industrials while one worked directly for Weyerhaeuser. Weyerhaeuser, KBR and Kenny Industrials each had policies prohibiting the possession of firearms by employees, including in parking lots on company property, according to the appeals court opinion.

The firearms policy of Federal Way, Wash.-based Weyerhaeuser states: "The possession of firearms or other weapons, explicitly or concealed, by anyone within the work environment … including vehicles on company property, is STRICTLY PROHIBITED." (Emphasis not added.)

Concerns about substance abuse at the Valliant paper mill in late 2002 prompted Weyerhaeuser security personnel to conduct searches of the employee parking lot with drug-sniffing dogs.

When dogs alerted Weyerhaeuser security to the presence of "contraband" in a vehicle, security personnel called in the license plate number to the McCurtain County Sheriff's Office dispatcher, who then provided the name of the vehicle's registered owner.

The eight terminated employees testified that they were called to the parking lot after dogs detected illegal substances in their cars. Six of the eight employees admitted to Weyerhaeuser security personnel that they had firearms in their vehicles and gave permission for searches, according to the appeals court opinion.

In addition to contending that their right to bear firearms was violated, the eight employees argued that the search conducted by Weyerhaeuser security violated their Fourth Amendment rights to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures and was an invasion of privacy they testified they were threatened with termination if they did not submit to searches of their vehicles among other contentions. The appeals court rejected these claims, as did the district court.

District Court Weighing a Related Case

An interesting twist to this case is that Oklahoma lawmakers in 2004 amended the Business Owner's Rights passage of the Oklahoma Self-Defense Act to essentially reverse its meaning: The amended version prohibits property owners from establishing policies that forbid employees or anyone on company property from keeping firearms in their locked cars.

In October 2004, a group of employers filed a lawsuit against the governor and attorney general of Oklahoma challenging the constitutionality of the amendment and seeking to block it from being enforced.

On Nov. 3, 2004, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Oklahoma granted a temporary restraining order forbidding the state to enforce the amended version of the Business Owner's Rights until the case is resolved. Consequently, until the district court issues its opinion, employees in Oklahoma may lawfully maintain policies that prohibit firearms on company grounds.

The eight employees terminated by Weyerhaeuser argued that the amendment to the Business Owner's Rights which was made 16 months after they were fired should apply to them retroactively. The appeals court rejected this argument.

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