Florida Law Takes Aim at Employers that Ban Firearms

A bill under consideration in the Florida House of Representatives would make it a third-degree felony for employers to prohibit their workers from keeping guns in their cars on company property.

House Bill 129, which was introduced by state Rep. Dennis Baxley, would make it illegal for anyone in the state to have a policy that forbids the storage of registered firearms in locked cars in any parking lot.

The National Rifle Association which is backing similar bills in other states says allowing guns in parked cars would give employees a means to defend themselves from carjackers and other assailants while commuting to and from work. Meanwhile, the American Society of Safety Engineers one of several groups that oppose the bill asserts making no-firearms policies a felony is an "absurdity" that would compromise workplace safety.

"Our members are safety, health and environmental professionals who are given the responsibility to make sure workers are able to go home safe and healthy from their jobs each day," ASSE President Jack Dobson Jr., CSP, wrote to members of the Florida House of Representatives. "Guns on company property even if only in the trunks of cars make that responsibility much more difficult."

Dobson says in his letter that ASSE's "key concern is the heightened threat of violence in the workplace that comes with easier accessibility to guns on company grounds," but he adds that a bullet fired in a workplace even if unintentional could trigger an explosion at work sites that have petroleum products or other volatile chemicals and gases.

Constitutional Rights, Commuter Safety

Baxley, an Ocala, Fla., Republican and funeral director, said the bill was inspired by the "shakedown inspection" of workers' cars in the parking lot of Weyerhaeuser Co.'s Valliant, Okla., paper mill in 2002.

The inspection, which was prompted by concerns over substance abuse at the mill, turned up firearms in the cars of eight employees of Weyerhaeuser or its contractors. The workers were terminated for violating their employers' firearms policies, and a Feb. 13 federal appeals court ruling upheld their employers' rights to ban firearms on company property. (For the full story, read "Court Rules in Favor of an Employer's Right to Ban Firearms.")

After hearing about the firing of the eight workers in Oklahoma, Baxley said he met with the Unified Sportsmen of Florida NRA's affiliate in the state to make sure "we don't have this kind of thing happening in Florida." Despite the appeals court ruling on the Oklahoma case, Baxley said he plants to fight for HB 129.

"I don't feel companies have the authority to have you check your constitutional rights at the driveway," Baxley said. "I think we need some clarification of state law to that end."

Andrew Arulanandam, director of public affairs for NRA, asserted HB 129 is "a good measure that ought to be supported by reasonable people" because it would give workers "an effective means of defending their lives and potentially the live of their loved ones" if they are accosted during their commutes to and from work.

"It's a constitutional issue," Arulanandam said. "We don't think anyone would disagree with the statement that every law-abiding human being has the right to self-defense. That, to us, is just plain common sense."

ASSE member Ed Granberry, who runs a chemical safety and environmental consulting firm in Winter Park, Fla., asserted that ASSE's position on HB 129 and similar bills does not center on the right to bear arms, however.

"We believe that is a constitutional right, and ASSE has not made this a debate to defeat, change or alter that in any way," Granberry said. "But we do believe that companies who own property and operate the business have every right to dictate how their employees behave on company premises and on company time."

Baxley Says He's Willing to Compromise

Baxley admitted HB 129 has stoked a passionate argument on the rights of property owners versus the constitutional right to bear arms. That debate has put Baxley on the other side of the philosophical table from a group he normally considers an ally: the Florida Chamber of Commerce.

Mark Wilson, executive vice president of the chamber, said the organization believes the Second Amendment which protects "the right of the people to keep and bear arms" only protects citizens' right to bear arms on their personal property. He called NRA's efforts to pass HB 129 and similar bills in other states "a national assault on the property rights of people all across America."

"Businesses are far better-equipped to decide what's best for their own facility than their government," Wilson said.

Wilson noted the chamber also is concerned that the bill could trigger an avalanche of liability lawsuits against businesses if the guns are used to commit crimes on company property.

Because of pressure from the Florida Chamber, Baxley said he has offered to make "some major concessions" in the bill's language, including downgrading the penalty for violating the gun policy law from a third-degree felony to a $10,000 fine. Other compromises could include exempting certain sites such as "homeland security environments" and work sites with hazardous materials from being required to allow guns on their property and expanding the bill's section on property owner immunity from liability.

Even so, Baxley said he won't back down from a fight if he believes the Florida Chamber isn't willing to compromise.

"If I find we're in a posture that they're just going to dismantle the bill no matter what I put up, I guess we'll have at it," he said. "I have about 3,500 e-mails in support [of the bill] versus about 200 form letters from the [Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence] opposing it. I think the people are with us at least on their freedom to protect themselves."

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