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Wednesday, 10 November 2010 20:48

Does working for the government give workers a free pass to carry a gun?

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Chances are, the identity of your garbage truck driver doesn’t always cross your mind. You probably give him a friendly smile if you happen to meet over the remnants of last night’s macaroni, but the odds on knowing his life story — or even his name — are pretty slim. He’s the guy who packs off your trash and carts your recycling away. But you may not know that, depending on where you live, he may also be packing heat.

That issue came up recently at a Canton town board meeting, where it came to light that town employees may, in fact, be carrying concealed weapons. Or not. Actually, no one’s quite sure.

“We had a written policy about the use of town vehicles,” said Town Manager Al Matthews. “In that policy, we said no alcohol, no illegal substances and no unlicensed weapons.” But in a routine update of the policy at a town board meeting, someone noticed a loophole. So unlicensed weapons are definitely out; but what about licensed ones?

The answer seemed to be an implicit “yes.” The town never said no, so if any of the 3,000-plus Haywood County residents with a concealed carry permit is in their employ, there’s a chance.

This verdict did not sit well with Alderman Eric Dills.

“If you have a concealed weapon permit, you can carry a concealed weapon with you to work for the town,” he said, voicing his considerable displeasure with the situation. “You can’t go down to Blue Ridge Paper and punch in with a pistol. It’s just a safety issue. It needs to stop. It needs to end.”

Matthews said he doesn’t know how many employees carry concealed weapons on the job, noting sagely that it would be hard to know as they are, in fact, concealed. But, he said, it’s never yet been a problem.

“There have been no issues of people carrying or possessing or any complaints regarding that,” he said.

Matthews and Assistant Town Manager Jason Burrell said that they’re gathering information for the next board meeting, putting out feelers to other towns to see what their policies are.

“We don’t want to be a trailblazer with this,” Matthews said.

They just want to set their rule by the bar others use, protect themselves against tragedy and liability. “It’s a very litigious society,” Matthews said.

If they’re looking for a standard in Western North Carolina, however, they’ll be a long time searching. A Smoky Mountain News check of other local governments found their policies range from long-held prohibitions to non-stances.

Waynesville prohibits it outright. If you’re on any piece of property that is owned, leased or controlled by the town, carrying your firearm – licensed or not – is illegal, regardless of whether you’re an employee.

“It wouldn’t make any difference if they had concealed carry permits or not,” said Waynesville Town Manager Lee Galloway. “It would still be prohibited on property owned, leased or possessed by the town. The two exceptions, he mentions, are law enforcement officers and the houses owned by the town that employees live in as part of their compensation.

Haywood County feels the same. Assistant County Manager Marty Stamey said they’ve long had in their policies prohibitions on packing.

“No one can carry a concealed handgun on property owned or operated by the county,” said Stamey.

On the other end of the spectrum, however, Sylva has no mention of weapons in its personnel policy, according to Town Manager Adrienne Isenhower, who said she also isn’t sure about how many of their employees are licensed to carry in the first place. It’s just never come up.

Bryson City Town Manager Larry Callicutt says that city’s position is roughly the same. They’ve got 33 employees, including their five aldermen, and the only restriction they’ve got is a ban on concealed weapons in town buildings. But any of those employees could easily be in town vehicles or on town duty with their concealed firearms. They’ve never been told not to.

Callicut also says he has no idea as to how many of his employees have permits, but his guess is at least a few.

“I’ve got one,” he says, with the caveat that he doesn’t bring it into the building.

According to Jennifer Canada with the North Carolina Attorney General’s office, local governments have long had the right to clamp down on whether their employees can bring weapons to work.

Under North Carolina General Statute 14-409.40, local governments can forbid their employees to carry firearms anywhere on any of their property or whenever they’re on town business. Many cities, towns and counties passed such ordinances soon after the measure was adopted in 1995 to protect their employees and citizens from danger and themselves from litigation, she said.

And, as Canton’s Matthews pointed out, in today’s world, it’s a necessary precaution.

Second Amendment scholar and expert Robert Cottrol, a professor at George Washington University Law School in Washington, D.C., said that even though the town might not be held liable in theory, the issue really hasn’t been tested in the high court.

“I think that’s a difficult question,” said Cottrol. “But if you follow what is the course in other areas — for example, if you are an employee and you’re driving a company vehicle and you get into an accident, obviously the company might be sued.”

Could that line of reasoning also apply to local governments in cases of firearm harm or misuse, even if the person isn’t given the weapon by the government or told they should use it? According to Cottrol, the answer is maybe.  

“The person is not necessarily carrying as part of his particular duties,” said Cottrol. “But nonetheless, the employee was in a particular place with the permission to be armed.”

Even, he notes, if the permission was only by omission – never saying no could imply yes. He also notes, however, that on the other side of that argument is that local government isn’t responsible for its employees actions with their firearms any more than the state can take the blame for what’s done with guns they permit.

“The state has given you a license to carry, but the state assumes no responsibility for your actions if you carry,” said Cottrol. “But the courts haven’t addressed it … at this point, I think these are still very much open questions.”

And that is what aldermen and town officials back in Canton are concerned about, and what other cities and towns may need to address, in case an improbable accident or unthinkable tragedy one day became a reality.

 

What the law says

NCGS 14-409.40(e) A county or municipality may regulate the transport, carrying, or possession of firearms by employees of the local unit of government in the course of their employment with that local unit of government.

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