The horrific Newtown, Connecticut elementary school massacre has brought the gun control debate front and center.  But gun violence is not just in our schools.  In August, a former employee shot and killed a co-worker near the Empire State Building before being shot by police himself, and eight bystanders were injured in the shoot-out.  A 30-person Minneapolis sign company was decimated in September when an employee who was discharged shot and killed six people, including the company’s founder and a UPS delivery driver, and wounded two others before taking his own life.  In November, an Apple Valley Farms employee shot four co-workers at a chicken processing plant in Fresno, California, killing two of them, before turning the gun on himself.  Not long after, a ConAgra Foods employee in Indianapolis fatally shot his co-worker outside a break room, then killed himself.  Two other workplace violence incidents, in Pine Bluff, Arkansas (an employee fatally shot her co-worker) and Manteno, Illinois (an employee shot and wounded his co-worker), took place in July, 2012.While these workplace shootings involve different issues than the Connecticut school massacre, just like educators and parents want safe schools, employers want to do what they can to prevent violence in the workplace.  Establishing a workplace violence policy that prohibits employees from bringing firearms on the employer’s premises seems like a reasonable, appropriate step to most employers.

However, employers can’t always do this.  Seventeen states have enacted “bring your gun to work” laws, allowing employees who have the legal right to carry a concealed weapon to keep that weapon in their cars, even when they enter private property owned by the employer, or encouraging employers to allow their employees to do so.  States prohibiting employers from banning guns in employee parking areas include Alaska, Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, North Dakota, Oklahoma, and Utah.  Similarly, Idaho and Ohio have laws that exempt employers from civil liability arising from a workplace policy permitting, or not prohibiting, employees to store firearms in their vehicles on the employer’s premises — a different approach that has much of the same impact.  The Florida and Oklahoma state laws have survived judicial challenge, and the Indiana law is the subject of a suit that will allow courts to weigh in once again.  Elected officials in Alabama, Tennessee, South Carolina and Pennsylvania have introduced similar legislation, hoping to join the club.

Private employers and chambers of commerce have generally opposed these laws, contending that business owners should have the right to dictate what happens on their own private property.  The laws’ proponents argue that employees are entitled to protect themselves during their commutes.  The proponents appear to be winning the day, although a change in direction is not out of the question in the aftermath of Newtown.

Given the growing prevalence of these laws, what can an employer do to protect its employees and minimize the danger of workplace violence?  First, a company should carefully consider a specific workplace violence policy that complies with the laws of the states in which it does business, and implement that policy as part of a comprehensive approach geared towards preventing workplace violence.  Remember that while the laws above regulate whether employers can prohibit firearms in parking areas, prohibition of the possession of firearms (and other weapons) in the workplace itself is still the employer’s prerogative.  While employers can’t control everything, they can still take reasonable steps that set employee expectations, identify clear rules, train their workforce (particularly management), and send a clear message that violence has no place in the workplace.