State business groups and WVU concerned over gun-rights bill

CHARLESTON — A House gun-rights bill heading for passage in the Senate today has leading state business groups and WVU concerned over property rights and public safety issues and the state’s business image. They are hoping the governor will consider a veto.

HB 4187, the Business Liability and Protection Act, says no private or public sector employer may be an employee, customer or invitee from keeping a firearm properly locked inside their vehicle from parking in their parking lot. A Senate amendment adds that the gun must be out of sight.

The property owner may not ask the driver if there is a gun in the vehicle and may not search the vehicle. An employer may not condition employment upon gun ownership or intention to keep a gun locked in the employee’s car.

The property owner or lessee may not take action against someone keeping a gun in their vehicle “except upon statements made pertaining to unlawful purposes or threats of unlawful actions involving a firearm.”

Another Senate amendment exempts vehicles owned or leased by the employer for the employee’s use.

The bill is on third reading for passage in the Senate today. If passed, it will return to the House for amendment concurrence.

Bill opponents have pointed out that a number of states have similar laws but provide various safety exemptions.

State Chamber of Commerce President Steve Roberts said, “This bill goes farther than any bill in any other state.”

For example, it doesn’t exempt church lots.

The chamber has received calls of concern from many employers, he said. “They just can’t believe that the legislature is about to pass a bill that would require them to allow firearms on their property.”

It’s perceived as anti-business, he said, and forces management to give up its right to manage.

The concerns about property control and safety, he said, are coming from many strong Second Amendment supporters. “As employers, they know what is best on their property.”

Some employers who oppose the bill compiled a comparison of other state laws. Alabama, for instance, allows employers to forbid weapons inside secured, restricted access areas and certain other areas.

Arizona exempts fenced, guarded lots with secure weapon storage.

Georgia exempts parking lots contiguous to facilities providing natural gas transmission and liquid petroleum transmission; and Texas exempts property owned or leased by a chemical manufacturer or oil and gas refiner. Here, in the House, Judiciary chair John Shott, R-Mercer, offered an amendment along these lines that was rejected.

Supporters have argued that the vehicle is private property and the owner has the right to keep a gun inside no matter where it’s parked. Roberts counters that it’s not about telling people what they can do with their own property, but about what property owners can do with a parking lots they own.

Chris Hamilton, chairman of the West Virginia Business & Industry Council, agrees. “We find that it does encroach on personal property rights of employers.”

It poses safety concerns at facilities with dangerous chemicals, oxygen and acetylene tanks, and to gas lines, he said.

And while the guns are supposed to be locked away and not brought into the place of business, he said, parking lots have been known to have conflict. “Sometimes a drive home provides a cooling off period for people to rethink and perhaps recompose.”

Hamilton and Roberts echoed something that Shott said on the Hose floor: Businesses and industries looking to relocate here may be put off if this becomes law, because of safety concerns.

“I think it’s another mark against the state,” Hamilton said. It may not make us less competitive, as such. “It will certainly make us less attractive. It kind of reeks of being part of the Wild West.”

Roberts said the chamber has heard concerns from economic development officials and from looking to expand. “Passage of this bill will not be helpful in terms of attracting new employers.”

Both said they are asking the governor to carefully review the bill and consider a veto.

WVU also opposes the bill. Rob Alsop, vice president for Strategic Initiatives, said WVU believes the Board of Governors is in the best position to determine weapons policy on campus.

He noted that theft, including theft from cars in parking lots, is one of the most prevalent campus crimes, so weapons locked in cars and getting into the wrong hands poses great concern. And while the bill doesn’t allow the guns to be removed from the vehicle and carried on campus, it still heightens to potential danger of confrontations.

The National Rifle Association endorses the bill. An NRA spokesperson was unable to comment in time for this report, but it explains its reasoning in an article on the bill on its website.

“Throughout the country, many employers and business owners have adopted ‘No Firearms’ policies that extend beyond the physical workplace or building to include parking lots – areas often accessible to the general public and not secure,” the NRA says.

“In order to comply with these policies, many law-abiding gun owners must choose between protecting themselves during their commutes and being subject to termination by their employer. The fundamental right to self-defense should not stop simply because you park your car in a publicly accessible parking lot owned by your employer or a business owner.”