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Employees can take guns to work, but must lock them up

TALLAHASSEE — A federal judge has upheld a new state law allowing employees with concealed weapons permits to take guns to work and lock them in their cars but ruled that businesses can prohibit customers from taking guns on their property.

Judge Robert L. Hinkle's ruling provided enough material for both sides to claim victory, a sign that the battle over the so-called guns-to-work law is not over.

"This will have a huge effect on employees who travel long distances to and from work and need protection when traveling," said Marion Hammer, a National Rifle Association lobbyist. "They can now protect themselves and be comfortable that they cannot be fired for exercising their rights."

Business interests portrayed the ruling as a victory because Hinkle did not say gun owners had a constitutional right to take weapons to work. Instead, the judge restricted that right to only employees with concealed weapons permits.

"For those of us who for three years have been saying that the Constitution is on the side of the property owner, we've been proven right today," said Mark Wilson, president of the Florida Chamber of Commerce.

The NRA and chamber's long battle in the Republican-controlled Legislature caused an awkward and politically precarious situation for the GOP, which has traditionally protected both property and gun rights.

The break came this spring when the bill was amended to pertain to only employees with concealed weapons permits. Enough Republicans felt that was an adequate middle ground, and the bill passed.

But now the issue could be headed back to the Legislature.

"We have the high ground now because it's not a constitutional issue," added Rick McAllister, president and chief executive of the Florida Retail Federation.

"The bottom line of all this is that we're concerned about our employees' safety and the safety of our business," McAllister said. "We know the fewer guns that there are, the better."

McAllister said he doesn't believe his organization will appeal. "On balance, it's a pretty good decision," he said. "Are we happy about the employee thing? No. We'll keep working to change the Legislature's mind."

Still, the NRA has reason to gloat. The thrust of the debate has been over whether employees can take weapons to work and less so about customers.

"The problem has been corporate giants who think they can control everything their employees do or say or everything that goes on a piece of property," Hammer said. "They are employers, they are property owners. They are not emperors, for crying out loud."

Attorney General Bill McCollum does not plan to appeal, spokeswoman Sandi Copes said.

Gov. Charlie Crist said he supports the judge's ruling. "I think its a good ruling. I would applaud the judge, and I'm glad I signed it."

More court action and appeals may come, but the judge suggested that attorneys confer on whether they want his preliminary injunction to stand or schedule another hearing.

The Attorney General's Office is reviewing claims by several large corporations that contend they are exempt and can prohibit their employees from bringing weapons onto their property. They include Walt Disney World and Universal Studios.

The law exempts other places including schools, nuclear power plants and some government installations. McCollum said his office is taking a thorough look at the issue.

Times staff writer Steve Bousquet and researcher Will Gorham contributed to this report, which includes information from the Associated Press.

Employees can take guns to work, but must lock them up 07/29/08 [Last modified: Thursday, July 31, 2008 2:14pm]
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