JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- Some Missouri lawmakers want to protect gun owners from any threat of workplace discrimination, just as state residents currently are protected for race, religion and gender.
Legislation that would make it illegal for employers to discriminate against people because they own or use guns overwhelmingly passed the Missouri House before lawmakers left for spring break.
For bill sponsor Wanda Brown, a Republican from Lincoln, the goal is simple: "We would never consider giving up our First Amendment (free speech) rights for a job. Why should we give up our Second Amendment rights?"
The National Rifle Association is pushing similar gun owner discrimination bills in other states, including Alabama and Tennessee, where the proposal has put lawmakers in a crossfire between gun activists and some of the state's largest employers. Some of the state's largest corporations, including FedEx, Bridgestone and Volkswagen, testified against the legislation and companion gun bills earlier this month.
They argued that it could make companies more vulnerable to discrimination lawsuits and could hurt the state's job creation efforts.
In Missouri, some lawmakers have questioned whether the legislation is needed. No one has provided examples of an employee facing discrimination over gun ownership.
"Does a person carrying a gun really qualify as a class that needs to be protected against discrimination in housing or employment?" said Rep. Mary Nichols, D-Maryland Heights.
Missouri currently prohibits discrimination based on "race, color, religion, national origin, ancestry, sex, disability or age."
Some lawmakers said it's more important to add protections based on sexual orientation than gun ownership.
"The Missouri House thinks it's more important to protect the right to own a gun than take on real discrimination," said Rep. Mike Colona, a Democrat from St. Louis who is gay. "I could get fired tomorrow because of the person I've spent the past 18 years of my life with."
Brown said she has no examples of employer discrimination against gun owners in Missouri, but she relayed the story of an owner of a Kansas City meatpacking plant. She said the man, whom Brown would not identify, was told that U.S. Department of Agriculture employees would not come back to his plant for inspections if he continued to carry his gun.
Beyond that, Brown said President Barack Obama's decision in 2008 to question potential hires for high-ranking positions in his administration about guns also concerned her. Question 59 on the president's survey read: "Do you or any members of your immediate family own a gun? If so, provide complete ownership and registration information. Has the registration ever lapsed? Please also describe how and by whom it is used and whether it has been the cause of any personal injuries or property damage."
The question prompted the NRA to speculate that Obama wanted to exclude gun owners from his administration. The Obama camp said the question was meant to ensure proper registration and wasn't meant to bar gun owners from a job.
"There are people who think you shouldn't have the option to own a firearm," Brown said.
Brown says she's not trying to establish new rights for gun owners. She said her goal is to reaffirm rights provided under the Second Amendment, and other lawmakers agree.
"It really disgusts me to hear people say we are carving out a protected class," said Rep. Jay Hougton, R-Martinsburg, a supporter of the bill. "Gun owners are spread across all classes in society."
The NRA did not respond to a request for comment. The group has said the effort will "protect law-abiding gun owners from anti-gun policies by employers across the state, including forced firearm registration, random vehicle firearm searches and 'gun zone' parking lots for gun owning employees."
Brown said she doesn't know what the bill's chances will be in the Senate. It passed the House on a vote of 115-36 -- mainly along party lines.
Companion legislation that would allow workers to keep their guns in their cars on company property has not yet come up for a vote on the House floor.
(EDITORS: BEGIN OPTIONAL TRIM)
Fred Heberer, president of the Second Amendment Coalition of Missouri, said he hopes lawmakers will approve that companion bill.
"There's no way to predict between the time you leave your home and the time you leave work whether you will need to defend yourself," he said.
If an employer does not allow guns to be kept in locked cars, gun owners have to leave their guns at home all day, he said.
(END OPTIONAL TRIM)
Similar bills also have been part of the NRA's push in Alabama and Tennessee.
Sixteen states have adopted similar laws, starting with Oklahoma, where the measure was pushed after a company fired a dozen longtime employees who had guns in their cars. According to published reports, Weyerhaeuser Co. sent gun-sniffing dogs into the parking lot of its paper mill in Valliant. Several companies opposed the law there, but it eventually was upheld in court.
(EDITORS: STORY CAN END HERE)
In Missouri, the bill is part of a shift toward more gun-friendly laws in the state.
Missouri voters rejected a 1999 attempt to create a concealed carry permit, but the state Legislature undid the vote four years later -- paving the way for concealed firearms.
In 2010, lawmakers broadened the state's "castle doctrine," which allows Missouri residents to use deadly force on intruders. The law now applies to any property invasion -- not just homes.
The firearm discrimination bill is HB 1621. The guns-in-cars bill is HB 1326.
(c)2012 the St. Louis Post-Dispatch
Visit the St. Louis Post-Dispatch at www.stltoday.com
Distributed by MCT Information Services