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Businesses Watch Gun Lawsuit
Thursday, August 9, 2001

A group of Utah business organizations is lending support to America Online in its duel with three former employees fired last year for carrying guns in a parking lot outside the Internet service provider's Ogden call center.

Utahns Luke Hansen, Paul Carlson and Jason Melling are suing AOL in 2nd District Court over their dismissals, arguing the company's anti-weapons policy violates the state's gun laws.

They contend Utahns with concealed weapons permits are allowed to carry their firearms just about everywhere except in secure areas such as airports, jails and courthouses.

Their lawsuit is being watched closely by pro- and anti-gun activists because it pits some of the most permissive gun laws in the nation against the rights of private companies.

At issue is whether private businesses have the right to restrict employees -- even those with concealed weapons permits -- from bringing guns onto company property, including parking lots. 

Utah business organizations including The Salt Lake Area Chamber of Commerce, the Ogden/Weber Chamber of Commerce, the Utah Restaurant Association and Utahns Against Gun Violence this week filed a "friend of the court" brief supporting AOL in the lawsuit. Friend of the court briefs are offered by groups that are not involved in the litigation but are interested in issues it raises.

The essential question is whether the public is harmed if a Utah employer enforces a rule prohibiting employees from bringing guns onto property they [the employers] own or lease, said Salt Lake City attorney Michael O'Brien, who filed the brief on behalf of the business organizations.

You "can keep and bear arms in accordance with the constitutional provision without having to do it when at work," O'Brien said.

The business organizations support AOL's argument that under Utah's at-will employment law, businesses can fire workers arbitrarily as long as the termination is not contrary to the public interest, such as in whistle-blower cases.

On Sept. 14, Hansen met co-workers Melling and Carlson in the parking lot outside AOL on their way to target practice at an Eden shooting range. Melling and Carlson carried two rifles and two pistols from their cars to Hansen's truck. The pistols and one of the rifles were in cases, and the other rifle had a receiver lock, Hansen said earlier this year. All the weapons were unloaded except Hansen's .40-caliber in his fanny pack.

Hansen and Carlson hold Utah concealed-carry permits, and Melling was in the process of getting one, so all three were familiar with state firearms laws, according to Hansen.

The three men were fired four days later despite what they contend were positive employment records.

For well-known Utah gun-rights attorney Mitch Vilos, the issue is not guns in the workplace. "The issue is whether or not an employer can prohibit its employees from having firearms in their cars in a public parking lot," he said.

AOL's parking lot is open to the public and provides access to at least four other businesses. As such, it should be precluded from the company's no-weapons policy, Vilos said.


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