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On Guns, Parking Lots and the Misrepresentation of "Rights"

A loyal reader has asked me to weigh in on the following fact pattern:

In Missouri, which has allowed gun owners to carry concealed weapons for a year, the situation regarding employees’ vehicles in parking lots hasn’t become a hot-button issue. That situation could change, however, if a case in the federal courts is resolved in a way that blunts companies’ authority to ban weapons on property they control.

If the guns-in-vehicles issue were to arise, Greg Jeffery of north St. Louis County, legislative chairman of the Gateway Civil Liberties Alliance, believes companies and employees could find a middle ground: The companies allow guns in vehicles while employees are honor bound to tell the security chiefs.

But Henry Nocella, a security consultant in Howell, N.J., calls this apparent conflict of rights – to bear arms and to be safe in the workplace — one that should be settled in favor of safety for employees, including from other workers with firearms on company property.

Consider the situation in neighboring Oklahoma, where the Legislature passed a law to force companies to allow employees to have weapons in their vehicles on company parking lots.

Large firms like Whirlpool Corp., ConocoPhillips and Williams Cos. filed suit in U.S. District Court to stop the state law from going into effect. The principle at issue could reverberate far beyond Oklahoma’s borders. The companies’ argument was the same as they applied to banning weapons in the workplace: Allowing employees to keep loaded weapons in their vehicles would increase the likelihood that someone, sometime, would turn trigger happy and wreak havoc.

First of all, the notion that I have “loyal readers” who are not related to me by blood, marriage or employer is truly mind-boggling. Thanks. Second, let me point out that the Second Amendment is not an area of expertise or interest for me generally.

Having said that, of course it’s utter nonsense to require employers to allow weapons of any nature on its premises, including parking lots. It practically goes without saying.

The more interesting question is how the debate even gets framed in such a way as to make such an outcome imaginable.

The answer lies in the distinction between positive rights and negative rights. To review: A “positive right” is a right to something, such as the right to emigrate or the right to enter into a contract. A “negative right” is a freedom from something, such a the right not to have your home searched without a warrant or the right not to be conscripted into the military.

Sometimes a right can be phrased in either positive or negative terms: I should have a positive right to marry another man, which is the same as saying I should have the negative right to be free from marriage discrimination based on my sexual orientation.

Socialists focus almost exclusively on the notion of “positive rights” and define them expansively — claiming “rights” to such things as healthcare, education, housing, wi-fi access, etc.

Depending on how radical a libertarian you want to be, your position can vary anywhere from “positive rights never exist under any circumstances” to “there should be a very high burden of persuasion before positive rights should be granted in a free society.”

This fact pattern, however, is a no-brainer.

The moment a libertarian tries to enter the debate between competing positive rights, he has, typically, already lost. If the debate on guns and parking lots is framed strictly in terms of supposed positive rights — the “right” to keep a weapon in one’s vehicle versus the “right” to a violence-free workplace, then the outcome can only depend on subjective whim and the politics of pull. Meanwhile, the only inarguable right — the negative right of freedom from interference with one’s property– is conveniently subordinated or totally disregarded.

We have, of course, seen this exact same “positive right versus positive right” framing trap just recently in the monstrous notion of smoking bans — see my previous posts regarding the bans in Dublin and of course New York City. We see with these bans the exact same (false) dichotomy as the gun-in-parking-lot debate, just in different costumes: A seemingly endless debate between “non-smokers’ rights” (huh?) and “smokers’ rights” (double-huh?) and no one, absolutely no one, stops to ask about the pub owners’ rights — the right to control his property and to run his business as he sees fit.

Go back to the article for a moment. Why should companies and employees have to find a “middle ground” on the issue of guns in a company’s parking lot? Why should those large corporations have to provide any justification for overturning Oklahoma’s insane, confiscatory law? Why should they not be able simply to say “It’s our parking lot and we say no guns, period!“? The answer of course lies in the fact that property rights (which are universally negative rights) have come to take a back seat to alleged “positive rights” that often require the government to use, to control or even to confiscate private property for higher, “social” purposes and the fulfillment of the “positive rights” of others.

So the next time you hear talk of the right to something, ask yourself whether that right can be expressed in negative terms — a freedom from something (or, more correctly, from someone — particularly the government). If it can’t, then it’s probably not a real right at all.

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Put Out That Cigarette Cell Phone!
“This Land is Private Land, This Land is Public Land”
“McWyatt’s Torch”

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