TALLAHASSEE — The National Rifle Association finally won its three-year fight Wednesday to allow Floridians to bring guns to work.
But powerful business groups, which lost a riveting battle for the loyalty of Republican lawmakers on the issue, said they will sue to prevent the measure from becoming law.
"It's inevitable," said David Daniel, chief lobbyist for the Florida Chamber of Commerce.
The Florida Senate, on a 26-13 vote that mirrored the earlier party-line vote in the House, sent to the governor a bill that prohibits businesses from barring employees or customers from bringing firearms with them and leaving them in locked vehicles.
Only employees with concealed weapons permits would be protected. Schools are exempt, as are power plants and other secure locations.
Gov. Charlie Crist said he anticipates signing the bill (HB 503): “The Second Amendment is very important. I understand there are competing interests, but people being protected is most important to me."
The Preservation & Protection of the Right to Keep & Bear Arms in Motor Vehicles Act would go into effect July 1, assuming there is no injunction from a pending lawsuit.
"It's absolutely absurd," said Martin Daugherty, owner of Image Depot in St. Petersburg. "My taxes are going up, they are talking about closing courts and not funding health care, and they are passing stuff like this?"
The bill is modeled after NRA-backed legislation in a handful of other states, including Oklahoma. But the law there was overturned last year by a judge who said it conflicted with a federal law meant to protect employees at their jobs. The state attorney general has appealed.
"The Florida Constitution gives the right to keep and bear arms and specifically says for self-defense. That's what this issue has been about since Day 1," said Marion Hammer, the NRA's Florida lobbyist.
The NRA pursued the legislation in the 2006 and 2007 sessions, only to hit a wall. Many Republicans wanted the issue to go away, not wanting to pick sides between private property rights and gun rights.
The measure died in the House last year just two days after the Virginia Tech shootings — a point Sen. Arthenia Joyner, D-Tampa, invoked during Wednesday's debate.
"We had the good sense to stop it last year because we knew it was the right thing to do," Joyner said. "Nothing has changed. & People's lives will be imperiled."
But Sen. Durell Peaden, the Panhandle Republican who sponsored the bill, dismissed those concerns and said people with "pistol-totin' " permits should be able to protect themselves. "It doesn't tell you you have to go out and buy a gun," he said. "It doesn't promote violence."
The breakthrough this session — an election year — came when the House changed the bill to restrict it to employees with concealed weapons permits. There are about 487,000 permit holders in Florida. Their identities are shielded under an exemption in the state's open records law.
Bill Bunting, a Republican Party official in Pasco County and well-known gun rights advocate, said that permit holders are versed in safety and that should provide a comfort level.
"Businesses should be happy about this," Bunting said. "If John K. Jerk comes onto a property trying to do harm, it would be nice to know a responsible employee can run out into his car and help alleviate the problem."
Businesses, however, fear the accessibility of guns if there are disgruntled employees or if someone breaks into a car and takes one.
"This bill engenders an environment that will be less safe than the current one," said Rick McAllister, president of the Florida Retail Federation.
He said business groups will still lobby Crist to veto the bill, but acknowledged a lawsuit may be the only hope.
"Clearly there has been an ongoing Plan B."
Alex Leary can be reached at (850)224-7263 or email@example.com.