After commissioners tell staff not to follow policy, legal questions remain

The Second Amendment is alive and well in Clark County, with public employees now temporarily allowed to carry concealed weapons -- that is, until county commissioners investigate long-term changes to the county's workplace violence policy.

Commissioners Tom Mielke and David Madore on Wednesday directed county staff not to follow a policy prohibiting employees from carrying concealed weapons. The rationale, commissioners said, was that some employees were possibly violating the protocol already because they were unaware it existed.

"We're not telling people, &Bring your guns,'" Mielke said. "We're not encouraging it. But people who come with concealed weapons are already doing it."

Although commissioners said they felt employees were unaware of the no-gun policy, it is spelled out in the county's Health and Safety Manual. The safety manual says the policy extends to conceal carry permit holders.

Still, county commissioners expressed surprise last month when they discovered there were weapons restrictions placed on employees. There are no restrictions placed on elected officials or the general public. That discovery followed a workplace shooting at the Center for Community Health, in an office operated by U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

The existing policy prohibits employees from carrying weapons at any county-owned facility. Weapons may be stored in cars, however, parked at county facilities.

Likewise, state and federal laws prohibit employees from carrying weapons at the courthouse, juvenile facilities and the community health campus. But even with the ban temporarily lifted, employees won't be able to carry weapons in those buildings.

Chris Horne, the county's chief civil deputy prosecutor, will continue investigating what liability measures the county would have to take, if a new, less restrictive gun policy were enacted. Questions remain regarding what's required of the county.

Madore, for one, had insisted that a state law pre-emption superseded the county's policy. The statute says the county cannot set policies prohibiting people from bringing their weapons into certain public buildings.

"As I read the state law, and as I understand the U.S. Constitution, we don't have the authority to restrict permitted gun owners from carrying concealed weapons into these areas our policy restricts," Madore said. "What I'm looking at is not to change anything at the courthouse, but just removing this terminology in the policy."

The state law in question, RCW 9.41.290, only applies to the general public, not county employees. The county may enact stricter policies on its employees, Horne said, and there's case law to support that.

The county will tap state resources, including municipal consultants, to see what policies other counties have passed regulating firearms.

Joe Levan, a legal consultant for the Municipal Research and Services Center, said it's rare for local governments to investigate changing their workplace gun policies, but it's not unheard of.

"In my experience, it's come up, but it's not one of the more common issues we deal with," he said. "It's quite uncommon."

The county's stop-gap policy allowing employees to carry concealed weapons will go into effect immediately.

Cities balk

Among other local governments, Clark County will be alone in allowing employees to carry concealed weapons. That shows no sign of changing.

In Vancouver, Mayor Tim Leavitt said the city had no interest in following the county's lead.

"Given the antics of two-thirds of the (county commissioners) over the past 14 months, the last thing we at the city would do is follow any course of action they take, especially of this sort, which appears to be irrational," Leavitt said. "Otherwise, such a decision about employee matters is the responsibility, by charter, of the city manager."

Ridgefield Mayor Ron Onslow said the city had a similar workplace violence policy, which prohibits firearms. That policy has gone unquestioned.

Onslow said he would listen to both sides of the debate, if city council wanted to slacken its gun policies.

Camas, too, has a policy in place, Mayor Scott Higgins said, but it's not heavily enforced, because the city doesn't want to engage in a Second Amendment fight. The city would possibly allow an employee to carry a weapon, if there were circumstances to justify it.

Easing the existing regulations, though, is not an option for the foreseeable future, Higgins said.

"We're probably not going to follow a movement started in Clark County," he said. "And that's nothing against Clark County; it's just that Camas will do what the city does."

Tyler Graf:360-735-4517; http://twitter.com/col_clarkgov; tyler.graf@columbian.com.

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