Parking Lot Laws: A History

  • Date:
  • June 17, 2020

Parking lot laws, also called “bring your gun to work” or “guns-at-work” laws, are state laws that prohibit property owners or employers from preventing individuals from storing firearms in their parked vehicles in the property owner or employer’s parking area. These laws subordinate employers and property owners’ right to regulate their own property to the right to bear arms. This blog post is the first of two describing the history of parking lot laws and the current landscape of such laws in the United States today.

Workplace violence, defined as “the act or threat of violence, ranging from verbal abuse to physical assaults directed toward persons at work or on duty,” is a significant threat to worker safety in the United States. In 2018, there were 453 workplace homicides in the United States, 351, or 77%, of which were intentional shootings. A study from 2005 found that “workplaces where guns were specifically permitted were 5 to 7 times more likely to be the site of a worker homicide [than] those where all weapons were prohibited.”

Employers have a significant interest in preventing workplace violence. In addition to causing employees physical and psychological harm, workplace violence can cause property damage, affect worker productivity and morale, and increase business costs associated with security and litigation. As of 2012, workplace violence in the United States is estimated to cost American employers more than $120 billion a year.

After a series of workplace shootings in the 1980s and 1990s, employers began to institute policies banning firearms from the workplace as part of a broader effort to prevent workplace violence. (In one of the most publicized incidents, a post office employee killed himself and fourteen others at his place of work in 1986, inspiring the phrase “going postal.”) For example, AOL’s Workplace Violence Prevention Policy stated that “[n]o weapons of any type are allowed in the [AOL] Call Center, or in the AOL parking lots, or while conducting AOL business,” and applied to “firearms of any kind.” Employees who violated these bans were often subject to termination.

In the 2006 case of Bastible v. Weyerhaeuser Co., for example, an Oklahoma employer terminated several employees after finding firearms in their vehicles in the employee parking lot in violation of a company policy prohibiting firearms on company property. The employees filed a complaint alleging that “their termination violated Oklahoma constitutional and statutory authority establishing their right to carry firearms,” but the district court granted summary judgment for the employer. On appeal, the Tenth Circuit affirmed the judgment, stating that “both the Oklahoma Constitution and the Oklahoma courts recognize that the right to bear arms is not unlimited, and, indeed, may be regulated.” (Although Oklahoma enacted laws allowing firearms in company parking lots prior to the appeal, the Tenth Circuit found that the laws did not retroactively protect the plaintiffs in this case.)

Terminations such as those in Bastible led to a push for protection for employees who wished to store firearms in their vehicles while at work. In fact, the attorney representing the Bastible plaintiffs submitted a provision to the Oklahoma Legislature to protect the right of “lawabiding gun owners . . . to transport firearms to and from work and park in the employer’s parking lot.” That proposal became the basis for the country’s first parking lot laws when the Oklahoma legislature in 2004 amended the Oklahoma Self-Defense Act, the statute that generally governs handgun possession in the state. The Act’s new provision provided that “[n]o 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 legislature also amended the Oklahoma Firearms Act of 1971 to include similar language.

Although several companies challenged the laws on the grounds that they violated fundamental property rights and were preempted by the federal Occupational Safety and Health Act,  the Tenth Circuit ultimately held in 2009 that Oklahoma’s parking lot laws were constitutional and were not preempted by federal law. Ever since Oklahoma passed the first parking lot laws, such laws have become widespread; twenty-three other states have enacted some form of parking lot law, while one additional state, Idaho, does not have a parking lot law but does grant immunity to employers who allow employees to store firearms in motor vehicles in parking lots.

The main debate over parking lot laws is between those who want to support workers exercising the right to “keep and bear arms during their daily routine throughout the day” and those who believe that such laws “infringe[] upon an employer’s private property rights.” In this context, the language surrounding the right to bear arms is largely focused on self-defense as “an individual right that [a] person should have,” while property owners are concerned about employee safety, liability and, perhaps, increased business costs. These concerns have remained largely the same over the last sixteen years, as proponents and opponents of parking lot laws have continued to debate whether such laws cause or prevent workplace violence, and whether the right to bear arms trumps the right to regulate one’s property.

Interestingly, parking lot laws have put businesses at odds with the National Rifle Association (NRA), which has blamed business owners’ fear of liability as the primary motivator behind opposition to parking lot laws. The NRA has actively campaigned against businesses who oppose parking lot laws, such as organizing boycotts against a group of companies that sought an injunction against Oklahoma’s parking lot laws and sending a mass mailing to its Oklahoma members asking them to “stop corporations from firing hunters and gun owners.” Similarly, the NRA has campaigned against at least one Republican politician who has advocated against a parking lot law, while allying with “pro-gun Democrats” in some states.

Next week, the second blog post will provide an overview of what parking lot laws look like from state to state, including who they apply to, what kind of behavior they regulate, and the various exceptions that allow employers to ban firearms from company parking lots in some circumstances.