Guns at work: Not a joking matter

| William A. Schreiner, Jr.

On this blog, we often see basic practices employers and employees should follow to minimize employment disputes.  For example, employers: don’t talk about religion on job interviews.  Employees: try not to curse too much at work, watch what you say on social media, and read what the company wants you to sign before you leave

None of these principles seems outlandish.  Many of these “morals of the story” are, in the abstract, things we all should have learned ago.

Here’s another thing we should all know: unless you’re in the gun business, guns and the workplace generally do not mix.  We’ve learned this from several cases of senseless gun violence in the workplace in recent years.  But even before a bullet is fired, just talk of guns and work can be a bad combination, as a Florida lawsuit brought by a former law professor against his law school demonstrates.

For justifiable reasons, employers and other employees get skittish when an employee starts talking about having a gun in the office.  Anthony Chase’s colleagues and bosses were no different.  When the law professor at Nova Law School in Florida emailed other faculty that he had “acquired a large Beretta handgun” and taken shooting classes, and that he was “on my own here…so I need to defend myself,” those faculty began asking each other if Chase needed psychiatric help.  It didn’t help matters that Chase was involved in a dispute with the law school over recognizing a union for service employees.  Over the next month, tensions escalated: Chase told his colleagues he had “started packing” a gun; they responded by asking him not to – to which Chase replied that he “owned a Beretta 8000” and had a “carry permit,” and made vague remarks about shootings in the parking lot. 

Almost immediately, Chase was dismissed from his tenured position.  The school told him it was because he was a security risk, and it had to take action to defend the campus community from potential danger.  Chase filed suit, alleging the very curious theory that because the law school must have believed him to be mentally unstable, then his firing violated the Americans with Disabilities act and a similar Florida state law – even though, he claimed, he was not mentally unstable and never even had a gun at all. 

Now, let’s unpack this Rube Goldberg-like theory: Chase: 1) said he didn’t have a Beretta and wasn’t planning to shoot anyone; 2) but admits telling people he did – and in response to that, 3) the law school thought his conduct was a sign of instability and threatening – and this, in Chase’s view 4) violated his right against unlawful termination, because it saw him as mentally unstable for telling people he had a gun and was bringing it to work prepared for self-defense – even if he, in truth, was not.   

The complaint, filed in early 2011, set flying a series of legal bullets over the next year or so.  Both parties battled over discovery.  Nova Law School’s lawyers filed a motion to sanction the lawyers on the other side – a relatively rare motion – alleging that Chase’s lawyers knew their complaint was “objectively frivolous” and could not be supported by evidence.  Piles of paper flew back and forth – many of those papers including e-mails that confirm Chase was telling his colleagues he had a gun, but also suggesting that Nova Law School had been frustrated by Chase as an academic troublemaker for some time, even before his gun threats. 

Now, with trial approaching, Nova Law School filed a motion for summary judgment last Friday, arguing that Chase is not entitled to claim the protections of the Americans with Disabilities Act because he’s not actually mentally disabled.  Even if he was, the school argues, it had a decent reason for firing him: Chase’s colleagues felt threatened by his clear statements that he was “packing heat” on campus. 

Even if, as is now clear, he wasn’t "packing heat." 

So, here’s the short moral of this twisted story. 

You may believe you have a right under the Second Amendment to the Constitution allowing you to carry a gun anywhere you want.  Some people believe this, and some states expressly allow it.  But just because you can do something, doesn’t mean you should do it, especially in light of the trouble guns have caused in the workplace.  As a general rule, to avoid the sort of trouble Anthony Chase has: 1) don’t bring your gun to work; and 2) don’t tell people you’re bringing your gun to work.