TALLAHASSEE — Alarmed by passage of a bill allowing people to bring guns to work, opponents on Thursday huddled with a powerful constitutional lawyer and put pressure on Gov. Charlie Crist to veto the measure.
Top business groups have enlisted Barry Richard, one of President Bush's advisers in the Florida vote recount in 2000, to research issues that could provide the basis for a court challenge.
"An argument can be made that it doesn't serve any legitimate public purpose that overcomes private property rights," Richard said of the bill. "... They are saying you have to allow something on your property that could pose a significant hazard."
The issue leapt to the forefront on Wednesday after the state Senate approved the bill on a party-line vote, something the House had already done. Crist has indicated he will sign it into law.
The bill (HB 503) prohibits businesses from barring employees or customers from bringing firearms with them and leaving them in locked cars. Employers could not search vehicles, fire workers or remove customers who have guns as long as the weapon is not exhibited for any other reason than lawful self-defense.
As a concession to get the bill passed, only employees with concealed weapons licenses would be protected. There are about 487,000 license holders in Florida.
The issue represents an epic clash between two bedrock constitutional issues — gun rights and property rights.
"The U.S. Constitution begins, 'We the people' not 'We the corporation,' " said Marion Hammer, the Florida lobbyist for the National Rifle Association who fought three years to get the bill passed.
Hammer, who dismisses fears about increased workplace violence, points to the Second Amendment and additional protections in the state Constitution allowing people to bear arms and for the government to regulate that freedom.
But opponents say that does not trump private property rights under the Fifth and 14th amendments as well as the state Constitution. University of Florida constitutional law professor Joe Little agreed.
"The essence of the ownership of property is the right to exclude others from the property," he said. "It's like the old westerns — check your guns at the door."
Last year, a judge struck down a similar law in Oklahoma, saying it conflicted with federal workplace safety guidelines. That decision, which has been appealed, would likely play a role in any legal challenge in Florida.
The pro and con arguments in Florida, however, have been more focused on constitutional matters, portending a captivating legal showdown.
In a sign of how delicate the situation is, powerful trade groups in Tallahassee declined to say whether they were laying the groundwork for a lawsuit.
"We're focused on the governor's veto," said David Daniel, chief lobbyist for the Florida Chamber of Commerce, which was most aggressively fighting the legislation.
Last week, Tampa-based Sweetbay Supermarket vented its concerns to state senators and Crist in an e-mail, calling the bill an "assault" on private-property owners and employers.
"The passage of this bill will force businesses and any other private property owner to allow firearms on their property," the company wrote. "Even more disturbing, if I comply with the provisions of this legislation and it results in a gun-related crime being committed on my property, I may be held legally responsible!"
Theresa Gallion, an attorney at Fisher & Phillips in Tampa, who represents businesses on employment issues, said her phone has been ringing nonstop since the bill passed Wednesday.
"I'll tell you, our clients are apoplectic," she said. "It's as if the Legislature lost its mind and decided the Second Amendment was more important than any other law or interest of its kind. It's really weird."
Gallion said some of her clients are already trying to figure out how they can get around the law, such as by "stretch(ing) the limits" of its few exemptions.
Among the employers exempted by the bill are schools, defense contractors and businesses that make, use, store or transport certain combustible or explosive materials.
Many manufacturers, for example, could seek protection under the latter exemption.
"The employer, under federal and state law, has the ability to place reasonable limits on even the most cherished of our rights," Gallion said. "I can't use the F word at work without getting into trouble. These are reasonable, everyday restrictions to the Bill of Rights. The Second Amendment is not special."