Originally created 02/04/01

Guns found in many businesses



Despite the seemingly endless number of companies with "zero tolerance" weapons policies, guns are as common as computers in many small businesses.

Carrying a pistol in the waistband feels as natural as a cash register key for employees at the United Loan & Firearms pawnshop in downtown Augusta. Unbeknownst to the typical customer, every one of the store's half-dozen clerks, both male and female, are armed at all times.

Store owner Johnny Finely encourages all his employees to carry pistols and makes it clear to each one why he wants them armed.

"If somebody comes in to rob us, we're going to shoot them," he says bluntly. "I've had five friends killed in robberies. Robbers used to just be robbers - just give them money and they would leave. Now, they take the money and shoot you anyway."

The issue of guns at work has become a hot topic in recent years because of several high-profile workplace shooting sprees, such as the four killings in 1997 by Arthur Hastings Wise at Aiken's R.E. Phelon Co. plant.

But many independent, or "mom and pop," retail business owners have been quietly keeping firearms behind their counters for decades, mainly as protection against criminals rather than angry co-workers.

"I don't know of a jeweler that doesn't have a weapon on the premises," said Bruce Freshley, co-owner of Doris Diamonds in Augusta, who carries a pistol. "If I were ever pushed to the point where I would have to utilize it, I would certainly do so."

The proliferation of rampage-style shootings has prompted most companies to adopt strict workplace weapons policies in the name of worker safety.

The policies are designed to absolve a corporation from any lawsuits that could arise from any use or misuse of weapons on their premises.

Small-business owners aren't so concerned about lawsuits - most don't evenhave a company policy manual. They keep firearms on hand because they consider their business as sacred as their home.

"We're talking about people who planted a seed, who have worked to grow a business from the ground up," said Dalton Brannen, a human resources expert and business professor at Augusta State University. "Most managers and employees at larger firms haven't experienced that."

Georgia law, like most state statutes, gives a business owner many of the same rights as a homeowner. As such, state laws address situations where business owners can use deadly force on their premises, said Mike Hobbs, spokesman for the state attorney general's office.

"Everyone is allowed to defend themselves to whatever extent the law allows," he said.

FIREARMS ARE COMMONLY found in small businesses that deal in easily liquidated merchandise, such as gun shops and electronics stores. Guns also are fixtures at cash-oriented businesses, such as liquor stores and convenience stores.

No data on gun ownership among business owners exist. But John Lott, a senior research scholar at Yale University's law school, said gun ownership rates are highest among middle-age individuals who earn between $70,000 and $100,000 a year, a common demographic for small-business owners.

"A lot of other evidence indicates gun ownership is high among people who have been robbed in the past," said Mr. Lott, author of More Guns, Less Crime. "That could infer that those could be people in businesses that are likely to be at risk."

Of course, not all people in high-risk occupations want to carry a gun, including Kevin Jenkins. Mr. Jenkins is constantly thrust into potentially volatile situations as the owner of World Collections, a debt-collection firm.

His clients call on him to repossess their merchandise from people who have refused to pay.

"I have to be able to deal with people in a nonthreatening manner," he said. "If people see that I have a gun, or even think that I have a gun, they feel threatened. And that's where problems start."

Nearly all business owners who carry guns for safety and security carry them concealed or have them hidden in strategic places at their business.

Like most states, Georgia law allows residents to carry concealed weapons inside any residence, business or vehicle they own. Still, most armed business owners go a step further and obtain concealed weapons permits so they don't have to disarm while going to and from the business.

However, permit holders can't carry concealed weapons everywhere. Certain government buildings, for example, are off limits.

Private business enterprises also can prohibit permitted individuals from bringing concealed weapons on their properties.

For example, Augusta Mall management last year approved a new transportation policy that bans taxicab drivers who do business at the mall from carrying concealed weapons, even if the driver has the state weapons permit. Taxi drivers, after law enforcement officers, are the most common victim of workplace homicide, with 41 out of every 100,000 killed, according the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.

OBTAINING THE WEAPONS permit in Georgia is simple. One only has to fill out an application at the county Probate Court, be fingerprinted, pass a criminal background check and buy a $24 money order payable to the Georgia Bureau of Investigation.

In more stringent South Carolina, residents also must pass a State Law Enforcement Division gun safety course.

Neither state requires applicants to demonstrate a need for carrying a concealed weapon.

"I think people would raise Cain if we asked that," Richmond County Probate Judge Isaac Jolles said.

Judge Jolles said a large number of applicants list their occupation as "self-employed," although he added that a wide variety of people apply for the permit.

Richmond County, the area's most populous county, issued 1,132 concealed-weapons permits last year. The county issued 1,065 marriage licenses during the same period.

Mr. Finley, who has a concealed-weapons permit, carries his pistol almost everywhere during the day, even on bank runs.

The longtime businessman brings it into the branch because his bank, like most financial institutions, does not allow commercial transactions at drive-up windows.

"Nobody wants to get out of their car holding 10 grand," he said. "Bank bags are like a beacon."

Bank officials are fully aware commercial customers bring loaded weapons into their branch offices, but they say it does not cause problems so long as the individual is discreet.

"The people out there who are legitimately carrying concealed weapons know that they should keep them concealed," said Dan Blanton, president of Georgia Bank & Trust Co.

NO-WEAPONS POLICIES

Most workplace weapons policies take one of three forms:

Zero tolerance: No person, including employees, patrons, visitors and vendors, is allowed to bring a weapon onto the premises. Such policies are also known as "criminal trespass" policies because violation of the policy can be a prosecutable state offense.

Employees only: No-weapons policy applies only to employees.

License holders allowed: Only individuals licensed to carry a concealed weapon are allowed to bring a firearm on the property. Policies of this type usually provide for the verification of the license before the individual is allowed on site.

GUNS, VIOLENCE AND WORK: BY THE NUMBERS

395,000: Average annual number of work-related aggravated assaults

84,000: Average annual number of business armed robberies

51,000: Average annual number of workplace sexual assaults

76: Percentage of all workplace homicides committed with a firearm

71: Percentage of workplace homicides that are robbery-related crimes

46: States with concealed-weapons permit laws

41: Number of taxicab drivers slain per 100,000 employed

7.5: Number of liquor store clerks slain per 100,000 employed

1.4: Percentage of workplace violence victims who reacted with a firearm between 1992-1996

Sources: Bureau of Justice Statistics, National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, Bureau of Labor Statistics

Reach Damon Cline at (706) 823-3486 or bized@augustachronicle.com.