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Gun Ownership Rights Overridden by State Safety Protections on Private Property

Takeaway: The state Supreme Court’s decision sets a precedent, indicating that safety protections on private property can supersede an employee’s right to store firearms in their vehicle while at work.

The Arkansas Supreme Court upheld employer rights in a recent case, determining that state and federal safety protections on private property can override an employee’s right to store firearms in their vehicle while at work.

The court ruled that while one section of a relevant state law is applicable to allow certain employee actions, it does not restrict the applicability of another section of that same law to bar the employee’s otherwise lawful behavior and to enforce limited immunity for employer policies on private property.

The stated purpose of state law Act 809 is to safeguard the gun rights of employees who wish to safely store firearms out of sight in their locked vehicle at their place of employment. Section 16-120-802 covers a different subject: immunizing employers from liability that might arise from their employees exercising their gun rights. The court examined which of these provisions might pre-empt the other when they are in conflict.

The employee worked for Union Pacific Railroad Co. In 2020, he parked his truck on company property in Arkansas with a gun locked in his truck out of plain view, in accordance with local laws. However, the company had a prohibition against any firearms onsite. When his truck caught on fire, the defendant’s firearm came to light. The plaintiff subsequently terminated the defendant for his company policy violation, but an arbitration panel reduced the penalty to a two-year suspension.

His cause was taken up by the state Assembly, which enacted a gun-rights protection law in 2021. In July 2022, the employee returned to work and again brought his firearm to work in his locked vehicle on company property, in violation of company policy. In September 2022, the defendant’s attorney requested assurances that the company now would honor the defendant’s position. Instead, Union Pacific filed a declaratory-judgment action in federal court to make clear that the Federal Employers’ Liability Act (FELA) pre-empted the state gun protection law; the defendant counterclaimed.

The Arkansas District Court ruled in favor of the plaintiff in finding that state law governing this case is pre-empted by the FELA. Thus, the defendant should not be allowed to lawfully bring and store his firearm in his vehicle on company property, the court explained, because it violated company policy. The court cited language on the legislative intent of the state law “to lawfully transport and store a handgun within his or her private motor vehicle for lawful purposes in any place where the private motor vehicle is otherwise permitted to be located.”

The plaintiff argued that state law expressly “immunizes employers from tort liability arising” of any employee action related to the presence of a firearm in a locked vehicle. The Arkansas Supreme Court acknowledged that “while legislative history may be considered, we do so only if a statute is ambiguous, and the legislative intent is not apparent from the plain wording.”

Because the statutes are not ambiguous, however, “we do not need to look beyond their plain wording” to conclude that Section 11-5-117 is severable from the liability-immunity provisions in Section 16-120-802(a), the court ruled. Regardless of whether the FELA pre-empts Section 16-120-802(a) on liability-immunity provisions, Section 11-5-117 of the state law does pre-empt the defendant’s otherwise lawful act.

In this case, the Arkansas Supreme Court affirmed the decision of the lower court to rule that certain provisions of state law—as well as the FELA—pre-empt the state law protecting gun ownership.

Union Pacific Railroad Company v. Franklin, Ark. Sup. Ct., No. 23-653 (May 2, 2024).

Anne Woodworth, J.D., is a freelance writer in Laurel, Md. 


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