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August 2004

Stephen Doherty

The average American workplace, if you work 40 hours a week and have two weeks vacation, requires 2,000 hours annually.That's almost 23% of your life each year. Do you know if any or how many handguns are in your workplace?

Workplace safety is major concern of employers who recognize the cost in both human and economic terms of death and injury to their employees. Handguns at work represent a unique risk management challenge to managers and workers alike.

Workplace violence, while a subset of workplace injuries, perhaps caused by accident, mechanical or structural failures or carelessness of workers, differs in one very important way�. intent to cause death or injury. Workplace violence, specifically those deaths and injuries inflicted by handguns, represent a clear polarization of safe workplace attitudes.

One side believes in the inalienable constitutional right of freedom to bear arms, including at their workplace(s). These beliefs are tempered, for legally possessed handguns, by varying state laws regulating possession of concealed handguns. Some states require no regulation if the handgun is carried openly without concealment.

The opposing view holds that a safer workplace can be achieved if handguns (and all firearms) are prohibited from the workplace. The prohibition of handguns from the workplace, even if the employee can legally possess them as a licensed or permitted person elsewhere, is a legitimate management action and a significant decision in workplace violence prevention. I have spoken directly to managers of companies that were uncertain of their legal ability to prohibit their employees from bringing handguns on company property as a matter of published policy. This uncertainty creates a significant teachable moment for employers to reach out to local law enforcement and get accurate information on firearms licensing laws in their jurisdictions. This information is vital to employers in their decision making on this critical component of workplace violence prevention. Will their decision make their employees feel safer?

In the aftermath of a workplace spree killing, the argument often surfaces that if only one other employee were armed with a handgun they could have intervened, engaged the shooter, and prevented further loss of life. This argument, made in a post workplace shooting environment by advocates of unfettered handgun possession, makes colossal assumptions. If other handguns were present at your workplace; what are the desires, skill, training and readiness of any of your coworkers to engage an armed assailant in a gun battle at your place of employment?

Any workplace where handguns are known to be present creates numerous risk management issues;

  • Are all handguns secured at all times?
  • Do employees, customers, visitors and employee family members know where handguns on company property are kept?
  • What is the response time for an employee to retrieve a handgun and intervene in any attempt to stop an attacker?
  • If company policy is silent on handguns at work and an employee does intervene, is the company thereby supporting or encouraging an employee counter attack?
  • Who pays for deaths or injuries caused by an armed employee who intervenes in what is believed or reported to be a workplace violence episode?
  • If workplace threats are made and tempers flare could an armed employee feel the need to use a handgun preemptively to try and avoid a violent situation?
  • Does a lack of company policy or one permitting handguns in the workplace change the insurance picture for the company and its employees?

Do you feel safer now?

If an employee in a dispute loses impulse control, as is often reported in workplace shootings where someone threatens to "go home and get my gun and come back and settle this," will the knowledge of handguns already in the workplace provide more immediate access to a deadly weapon?

If a workplace shooting takes place and employees having handguns choose to take action on their own, the responding police could be faced with many armed individuals, all in civilian clothing in a highly agitated state. Who was the original attacker? Who was the defender? All the police know for certain in responding to a shooting call is anyone with a handgun represents an immediate threat to them.

Do you feel safer now?

Handguns and other firearms stored in employee vehicles parked on company property pose additional concerns. If company policy is silent on this issue more availability of firearms creates more access opportunity, not only for employees but now outsiders as well. There are tens of thousands of thefts of as well as thefts from automobiles in corporate parking lots. Handguns to criminals are a sought after prize in personal vehicles. The rumor, street information or company gossip that handguns may be found in cars parked on a particular lot may increase breaking into these vehicles to claim the prized handguns. A shooting in your company parking lot, by an employee or stranger is more workplace violence.

Do you feel safer now?

Handguns in the workplace possessed illegally are the most difficult category of all. To this point we've spoken of handguns by persons who may have or be eligible for legal state authorization to carry a handgun. What about those employees who bring a handgun to work illegally? They are probably not concerned about violating a company policy prohibiting handguns at work because they are most likely committing a serious felony by being in unlicensed possession of a handgun at all. Illegally carried handguns are almost always continuously on the person or under their direct control. If discovered by a coworker the employee with the illegal handgun may feel immediately threatened by loss of his or her job and possible criminal charges. What does the handgun carrier do next? What does the discovering coworker do next?

Do you feel safer now?

The decision to allow or prohibit handguns on company property is a weighty one. It is estimated that in workplace homicides a firearm is the implement of choice 80% of the time. Does nearby availability of a handgun facilitate workplace violence or could it lessen the lives lost to a shooter in your workplace with nothing left to lose?

Do the research. Learn your state laws. Involve local law enforcement in your plans. Then, whatever you decide, communicate it to your employees and train them on workplace violence awareness issues so they'll� feel safer now.

Stephen Doherty is CEO of Doherty Partners LLC, a private workplace violence consulting firm. He retired as Chief of Police in Wakefield (MA) after thirty-three years of service and can be reached at 617-393-9928 or

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