What started off as “zero tolerance” corporate firings of a handful of employees and contract workers, who kept firearms in locked automobiles on a company parking lot in rural Oklahoma, has escalated into a larger battle that may well threaten the very concepts of personal self-defense and the exercise of Right-To-Carry in that state.
The issue surfaced October 1, 2002, when officials of the Weyerhaeuser paper mill in small-town Valiant, Okla., conducted what they claimed was a drug search of employee vehicles on a company parking lot. The search was reportedly precipitated by a drug overdose at the plant. The local sheriff’s department was called in to assist. Drug-sniffing dogs turned up no drugs, but did locate firearms concealed in locked vehicles-firearms legally stored under Oklahoma law. The owners or drivers of those vehicles were summoned to the lot, forced to agree to searches under threat of losing their jobs; then were summarily fired anyway for possessing guns in private vehicles on company property.
The mill is located in the deeply wooded country of southern Oklahoma where gun ownership is a way of life. By the way, the search took place at the beginning of deer season.
For years, the company’s policy allowed individuals parking in its lots to keep firearms in vehicles as long as they were out of sight and the vehicles securely locked. But according to court documents, all that changed with adoption of a union contract reversing the policy. Attorneys say the details of the union agreement were not published until after the October 2002 firings, and that non-union employees and contractors were unaware of any rule change. Furthermore, the parking lot in question is open to the general public, which uses it for access to nearby commercial and sporting facilities.
The basic injustice of the terminations was perhaps best expressed as part of a front-page story in the Wall Street Journal, which made all this a national controversy overnight.
Among the personal stories the Journal cited was this: “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.”
The newspaper quoted plant manager Randy Nebel, saying “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.”
Trampling the civil rights of a model citizen does not equal safety. Why should a “model worker” lose his career as the price for exercising a constitutional right, innocently and lawfully keeping firearms in his locked vehicle?
The fired employees are fighting in court-to get their jobs back-assisted by funding from the NRA Civil Rights Defense Fund.
This would have been just a case of law-abiding citizens falling victim to unreasonable “zero tolerance,” but for the near-unanimous action of the Oklahoma legislature, which reacted to widespread public outrage over the injustice of the firings.
Led by McCurtain County Democrat Rep. Jerry Ellis-himself a former Weyerhaeuser employee-the state legislature passed remedial legislation unanimously in the House. The Senate version passed by a 92-4 margin under the leadership of State Sen. Frank Shurden, who in 1995 authored the Oklahoma Right-To-Carry statute.
Sen. Shurden recently told the online edition of the Ardmorite, “A lot of these businesses have late-night shifts, and these employees are subject to being violated by any type of predator that may be armed.” They should be able to defend themselves from violent criminals.
The legislation was simply worded and direct: “No person, property owner, tenant, employer or business entity shall be permitted to establish any policy or rule that has the effect of prohibiting any person, except a convicted felon, from transporting and storing firearms in a locked vehicle on any property set aside for any vehicle.”
The law went beyond the question of employers and employees and extended the concept to all law-abiding individuals.
From the get-go, this was a “gun control” issue and this straightforward law-slated to take effect November 1, 2004-should have been the end of it.
But that was before several huge corporations, led by Whirlpool, Williams Co. and ConocoPhillips, filed suit in federal court asking that the law be struck down. Remarkably, Weyerhaeuser was not a party to this action. And Whirlpool, perhaps because it has a direct consumer base, withdrew. A federal judge temporarily stopped the implementation of the gun-rights law, pending action by state courts, in what could become an extremely complex web of litigation-which could well cripple armed self-defense by peaceable residents of Oklahoma.
It pits corporate policy against the constitutional rights of the little guy, the individual citizen, with NRA foursquare on the side of individual rights.
Copyright National Rifle Association of America Feb 2005
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