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July 14, 2008

Guns and the Workplace

Dixon, Kentucky residents were in a state of shock last month when they learned that a member of their community had opened fire at a local plastics plant in their small Ohio River town. Around midnight on June 24, Wesley N. Higdon, a worker at Atlantis Plastics, shot and killed five of his fellow employees before turning his handgun on himself and committing suicide.

Higdon had become upset earlier that day when his supervisor reprimanded him for using his cell phone and not wearing safety goggles. Higdon called his girlfriend, Teresa Solano Ventura, two hours before the shooting and told her he wanted to kill himself. Ventura did not take the warning seriously due to similar previous threats from Higdon and failed to contact the police.

In his shooting spree, Higdon used a .45 caliber pistol which he legally kept in his car. In 2006, Kentucky enacted a law at the behest of the National Rifle Association (NRA) that forces businesses to allow employees to keep firearms in their vehicles on company property. Kentucky is not alone—seven other states have adopted such Guns in the Workplace laws, Florida being the latest. These laws have passed despite the determined and nearly unanimous opposition of business groups, who view them as a historic attack on private property rights. In the Sunshine State, the Florida Chamber of Commerce and the Florida Retail Federation have launched a lawsuit to overturn the law. A federal court in Oklahoma has already declared that state’s law unconstitutional.

The gun lobby also seems to be fighting the statistical evidence about the dangers of guns in the workplace. One study published in the American Journal of Public Health found that workplaces where guns were permitted were five times more likely to be the site of a workplace homicide compared to workplaces where guns are prohibited. Higdon’s threats were also not uncommon—in a 2005 survey, nearly 60% of major employers indicated that a disgruntled employee had threatened a manager or co-worker at their firm in the last 12 months.

Higdon was no hardened career criminal. He legally purchased his handgun and was precisely the type of “law-abiding gun owner” that the NRA claims will make our communities safer by being armed and ready. Why Higden suddenly became a killer we might never know ... It was likely the result of stresses in his life, stresses in the home and workplace, the likes of which millions of American experience every day. Higden’s easy access to a handgun after an argument with his supervisor, however, turned what should have been a verbal spat (or, at worst, a fistfight) into a tragic incident that has left six dead and traumatized a community. Hopefully, future legislators will keep that in mind when the NRA comes calling.


  1. How many "law-abiding" citizens use guns to kill others compared to criminals who use guns to kill? I'm talking about murders, murder/suicide, not justified shootings or people who just kill themself with a gun. I'd like to see those numbers. I want to see a stat that shows how many people who've killed using a gun had "no prior criminal record" compared to criminals who do have criminal records who kill. Once the law-abiding start to outnumber the criminals, then CSGV will have a valid concern.

  2. Anonymous, we regularly refer to stories about law-abiding citizens who use guns to kill in our "Ordinary People" series here at Bullet Counter Points. Sadly, the Kentucky incident was not uncommon. Many terrible high-profile shooting incidents in our country in recent years have involved killers who legally purchased their guns.

    In any case, we continue to lose more than 30,000 people to gun violence per year in the U.S. Efforts to save those lives, and spare victims and survivors the pain that these incidents cause, remain valid regardless of the criminal disposition of shooters in any particular case(s).

    FBI statistics do not reveal many justifiable homicides, however. Only 143 justifiable homicides with a firearm were reported by the FBI in 2005. This is in a year when a total of 12,352 people were murdered with firearms in the United States (CDC, WISQARS tool).

    The FBI also breaks down all murders by circumstance and the relationship between the victim and offender. These stats reveal that more murders involve acquaintances as opposed to strangers. They also reveal that common everyday arguments are the cause of more firearm murders than felony offenses. - CSGV

  3. Such statistics are misleading because justifiable homicides represent the SMALLEST amount of defensive gun use, by both police and private citizens.

    If we are to consider the effectiveness of guns for defense, you can't just look at cases where the criminal attacker was killed. You also have to look at cases where the criminal was held up at gun point until the police arrested them, was wounded, or was scared off and forced to retreat.

    Taking all incidents of firearm self defense into account shows that firearm self defense by private citizens is very common and effective. A BJS study recorded almost 83,000 defensive gun uses per year from 1987 to 1993. It also reported that only 20% of citizens who defended themselves with firearms were injured by their attackers, compared with 50% who defended themselves using other means:


    Note the BJS number of 83,000 defensive gun uses per year is the smallest number I've found. Other studies (such as one by Florida Criminologist Gary Kleck) put the number much higher. And yet, even the BJS study shows that defensive gun is vastly more common then gun murders, accidents, and suicides combined.

    If you are going to consider the effectiveness of citizen self defense, you should do so using reasonable standards. No reasonable organization would judge the effectiveness of the police only by the number of criminals they kill each year. Armed citizens should not be judged in this manner either.

  4. thestaplegunkid, using your own logic of considering both fatal and non-fatal incidents involving firearms, it should be noted that there were more than 135,000 total gun deaths and injuries in the U.S. during each of the years considered in the DOJ study you cite (1987-1992). That exceeds the 83,000 annual defensive gun uses cited in the study by a considerable margin.

    As for the notion that those using firearms to fend off attackers were more effective in avoiding injury than those using other weapons or no weapons, the DOJ study makes the following exclaimer: "Care should be used in interpreting these data because many aspects of crimes--including victim and offender characteristics, crime circumstances, and offender intent--contribute to victims' injury outcomes."

    What is also interesting is that the study notes that "In most cases victims who used firearms to defend themselves or their property were confronted by offenders who were either unarmed or armed with weapons other than firearms." Specifically, only 35% of those who used a firearm in self-defense actually faced an offender who had a gun. DOJ makes no judgments in this study on whether the level of force employed by these individuals was appropriate or consonant with the threat they faced. It may very well be that the presence of firearms in many of these incidents escalated what otherwise might have been non-violent (or non-fatal) encounters.

    According to the DOJ study, gun owners also provided criminals with ample opportunities to arm themselves through firearm theft: "From 1987-1992 victims reported an annual average of about 341,000 incidents of firearm theft. Because the NCVS asks for types but not a count of items stolen, the annual total of firearms stolen probably exceeds the number of incidents." It should also be noted that there is no federal law requiring the reporting of lost and stolen firearms, and almost no state laws in this regard. There are undoubtedly thousands of stolen firearms that go entirely unreported every year.

    But your reasoning is somewhat circular in any case. A society that has strong gun laws that deny criminals access to firearms does not need to arm itself to the teeth in order to feel safe. Such laws are in place in virtually every other industrialized democracy in the world. As a consequence, these democracies have lower overall homicide rates and lower gun death rates than the U.S. Our country can easily and sharply reduce the number of annual gun deaths without promoting an arms race between "good guys" and "bad guys." - CSGV