Published Tuesday, August 23, 2005, in Washington Times

Stop endangering employees

By John R. Lott, Jr. and April L. Dabney

Banning guns from the workplace seems like the obvious way to prevent workplace violence. At least that is the policy at ConocoPhillips and many other companies. The nation's largest oil refiner bans employees from storing locked guns in their cars while parked in company parking lots. The issue erupted this month when the NRA announced a boycott of Conoco and Phillips 66 gasoline stations and editorial pages across the country attacked the NRA's action as outrageous.

    Two-and-a-half years ago, 12 employees at a Weyerhauser plant in Oklahoma were fired when they were caught unawares of a change in the company's ban on guns policy that was extended to the parking lot. The company had used trained dogs to find guns in employees' vehicles. Oklahoma's legislature overwhelmingly passed a law letting employees keep locked guns in their cars, but two firms, ConocoPhillips and the Williams Co., are challenging the law in court on the grounds that it endangers worker "safety."

    Gun-free zones may appear like the solution to violence, but consider an analogy: Suppose a criminal is stalking you or your family. Would you feel safer putting a sign in front of your home saying, "This Home Is a Gun-Free Zone"? The answer seems pretty clear. Since law-abiding citizens will obey the signs, such "safe zones" simply mean that criminals have a lot less to worry about. Indeed, international data as well as data from across the United States indicate that criminals are much less likely to attack residents in their homes when they suspect that the residents own guns.

    Consider also the impact of right-to-carry laws — laws that automatically grant permits for concealed handguns once applicants pass a criminal background check, pay their fees and (when required) complete a training class. In 1985, just eight states had these laws. Today, 37 states do.

    Examining all the multiple-victim public shootings from 1977 to 1999, one of the current authors with Bill Landes at the University of Chicago found that, on average, states that adopt right-to-carry laws experience a 60 percent drop in the rate at which the attacks occur and a 78 percent drop in the rate at which people are killed or injured from such attacks.

    To the extent that such attacks still occurred in right-to-carry states, they overwhelmingly took place in so-called gun-free zones. The effect of right-to-carry laws is greater on multiple-victim public shootings than on other crimes, and for a simple reason: Increasing the probability that someone will be able to protect himself improves deterrence. Though it may be statistically unlikely that any person in particular in a crowd is carrying a concealed handgun, the probability that at least one person is armed is high.

    For these attacks, the most important factor in determining the amount of harm is the length of time between the start of the attack and when someone with a gun can stop the attack. The longer the delay, the more people are harmed. By reducing the number harmed, right-to-carry laws take away much of the benefit these warped minds think they are achieving by their attack.

    The vast majority of academic research finds that concealed handguns reduce violent crime, and, despite all the national studies that have been done, there is not a single refereed academic journal publication that claims a statistically significant increase in violent crime.

    The experiences in states with right-to-carry laws indicate that permit holders are extremely responsible and extremely law-abiding. Accidental gun deaths simply have not increased after states adopt these laws, and permit holders lose their permits for even the most trivial firearms-related violations at hundredths or thousandths of a percent. Police are important in deterring crime, but they almost always arrive after the crime has been committed. Annual surveys of crime victims in the United States by the Justice Department show that when confronted by a criminal, people are safest if they have a gun.

     The real question is why the two firms bringing the case, ConocoPhillips and the Williams Co., are doing so. States supersede company decisions all the time on safety issues, and the legislature is clearly on record saying they believe that employees having access to their guns on net make them safer. The companies seem to have no more chance of winning this case than they do saying that they object to requirements that smoke alarms be installed. Given the NRA's belief that "The right-to-carry saves lives," it is hard to fault them for boycotting firms they think are endangering worker safety. Good intentions do not necessarily make good policy. What counts is whether the rules ultimately save lives.

    The new rules that prohibit lawful gun-owners from having guns on company property look more likely to actually wind up costing more lives, rather than saving them.

     *   John R. Lott Jr., the author of "More Guns, Less Crime," is a resident scholar and April L. Dabney an assistant at the American Enterprise Institute


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