Florida Guns-at-Work Bill on Hold

March 2, 2006
A Florida bill that would allow workers to keep guns in their cars on company property is back in its holster, for now.

House Bill 129, which would make it illegal for employers or property owners to have policies that forbid guns in locked cars on their property, stalled after a recent public hearing on the bill revealed a "broad gap of consensus," according to state Rep. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, the bill's sponsor.

HB 129 has touched off a heated debate on the rights of property owners versus the right to bear firearms, pitting Florida's business lobby versus the National Rifle Association. Baxley's decision to delay a vote on HB 129 came even after he made a number of changes to the bill in an attempt to mollify critics such as the Florida Chamber of Commerce and the American Society of Safety Engineers.

"We have a couple months to work with the business community on this," Baxley told Occupationalhazards.com. "We hope to come to a better meeting place."

The introduction of HB 129 has put Florida lawmakers and business groups who normally are allied with NRA in a tough spot, said Florida Retail Federation President and CEO Rick McAllister.

"I think the problem of this bill is it pits two friends against each other," McAllister said. "That makes it very difficult for legislators to vote on a bill in this sort of situation. If anybody but NRA had brought this concept, it would've have gotten any legs at all. But NRA has great credibility."

McAllister added that the Florida Retail Federation typically supports NRA's initiatives, but this time the group's members "are adamantly opposed" to HB 129.

Brady Center: NRA Wants Similar Bills in Every State

Although Baxley vowed to have HB 129 ready for a vote sometime during the current legislative session which ends May 6 Brian Siebel of the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence said the stalling of the bill is a bit of a blow to NRA, which long has considered Florida a stronghold.

"NRA thought they could simply roll over the Florida Legislature as they have in the past, but they have finally run into a lobbying force the Florida business community that is just as strong and has expressed in no uncertain terms how terrible this bill would be for business property rights and for the risk of workplace violence," Siebel said.

A Brady Center report released in November 2005 titled "Forced Entry: The National Rifle Association's Campaign to Force Businesses to Accept Guns at Work" contends that NRA has launched a nationwide campaign to pass legislation similar to HB 129. The model for HB 129 and similar bills, the report says, is a 2004 Oklahoma "forced-entry" law, which currently is being debated in a federal court.

Siebel told Occupationalhazards.com that Florida is a key battleground state for NRA's campaign.

"If NRA loses in Florida, it will certainly be a serious setback for NRA's attempts at getting guns-at-work bills passed throughout the United States," Siebel said.

The Brady report also points to a May 2005 study that asserts that workplaces where guns were permitted were five to seven times more likely to be the site of a worker homicide. Such statistics echo concerns expressed by ASSE President Jack Dobson Jr., who told Florida House members in a letter that having guns on company property would make safety professionals' jobs "much more difficult."

NRA Inspired by Oklahoma Case

NRA Director of Public Affairs Andrew Arulanandum bristled at the suggestion that NRA is in the midst of a "nationwide" campaign to force employers and property owners to allow guns in parked cars on their property, asserting that similar bills are being considered "in a handful of states" right now.

Arulanandum added that NRA's current lobbying efforts were inspired by the 2002 firing of eight workers for storing guns in their parked cars while were working at Weyerhaeuser Co.'s Valliant, Okla., paper mill. The eight workers were fired for violating the no-firearms policies of Weyerhaeuser and two of its contractors.

"We're trying to make sure what happens in Oklahoma doesn't happen anywhere else," Arulanandum said. "While some people might contend that it was legal in Oklahoma to fire these employees [for having guns on company property], what might be legal might not necessarily be the right thing to do."

On Feb. 13, a federal appeals court ruled in favor of the employers' rights to enforce their firearms policies and to terminate the eight workers for violating those policies. (For the full story, read "Court Rules in Favor of an Employer's Right to Ban Firearms.")

Arulanandum asserted that NRA's support of bills similar to HB 129 not only stems from its belief in the constitutional right to bear firearms but also from its concern that workers need guns to fend off carjackers and other assailants on their way to and from the workplace.

"We hear this every month: [A worker] is commuting somewhere and someone tries to run them off the road, or a worker pulls over to help someone change a tire and gets taken advantage of," Arulanandum said. "All they have to do is show [the assailant] that they have a gun and a bad situation is averted. It is because of those kinds of situations that we're trying to pass this legislation."

None of that holds water with the chamber's Wilson.

"This is clearly a national membership drive for NRA," Wilson said. "They're losing members in Florida. I believe they literally sat down and cooked up a scheme to make it sound like somebody was trying to take away somebody's gun somewhere. I believe, when it's all said and done, and millions of rifle members learn they've been lied to by NRA, that NRA will lose even more members than they've already lost."

While Wilson called the postponement of a vote on HB 129 "a victory for property-owners everywhere," he added that "NRA is not done by any means in Florida." An identical Senate version, sponsored by Sen. Durell Peaden Jr., is expected to be discussed next week in the Senate Criminal Justice Committee, he noted.

For more on this story, read "Florida Law Takes Aim at Employers that Ban Firearms."

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