Guns and the Workplace

Dixon, Kentucky residents were in a state of shock last month when they learned that a member of their community had opened fire at a local plastics plant in their small Ohio River town. Around midnight on June 24, Wesley N. Higdon, a worker at Atlantis Plastics, shot and killed five of his fellow employees before turning his handgun on himself and committing suicide.

Higdon had become upset earlier that day when his supervisor reprimanded him for using his cell phone and not wearing safety goggles. Higdon called his girlfriend, Teresa Solano Ventura, two hours before the shooting and told her he wanted to kill himself. Ventura did not take the warning seriously due to similar previous threats from Higdon and failed to contact the police.

In his shooting spree, Higdon used a .45 caliber pistol which he legally kept in his car. In 2006, Kentucky enacted a law at the behest of the National Rifle Association (NRA) that forces businesses to allow employees to keep firearms in their vehicles on company property. Kentucky is not alone—seven other states have adopted such Guns in the Workplace laws, Florida being the latest. These laws have passed despite the determined and nearly unanimous opposition of business groups, who view them as a historic attack on private property rights. In the Sunshine State, the Florida Chamber of Commerce and the Florida Retail Federation have launched a lawsuit to overturn the law. A federal court in Oklahoma has already declared that state’s law unconstitutional.

The gun lobby also seems to be fighting the statistical evidence about the dangers of guns in the workplace. One study published in the American Journal of Public Health found that workplaces where guns were permitted were five times more likely to be the site of a workplace homicide compared to workplaces where guns are prohibited. Higdon’s threats were also not uncommon—in a 2005 survey, nearly 60% of major employers indicated that a disgruntled employee had threatened a manager or co-worker at their firm in the last 12 months.

Higdon was no hardened career criminal. He legally purchased his handgun and was precisely the type of “law-abiding gun owner” that the NRA claims will make our communities safer by being armed and ready. Why Higden suddenly became a killer we might never know … It was likely the result of stresses in his life, stresses in the home and workplace, the likes of which millions of American experience every day. Higden’s easy access to a handgun after an argument with his supervisor, however, turned what should have been a verbal spat (or, at worst, a fistfight) into a tragic incident that has left six dead and traumatized a community. Hopefully, future legislators will keep that in mind when the NRA comes calling.

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