Big business declared victory over the gun lobby Wednesday in an escalating fight over whether employees should be allowed to take guns to work.
For the second time, the National Rifle Association failed to advance a proposal that would penalize businesses that prevent employees from keeping guns in their cars at work. Lawmakers in a House committee sidestepped a final vote after an hour and a half of debate that mostly focused on the troubles the law could create.
"Anyway you cut it, property owners and the Florida chamber won," said Mark Wilson, executive vice president of the Florida Chamber of Commerce. "And the NRA lost."
But gun advocates aren't admitting defeat.
"If they want to run and thump themselves in the chest and call this a victory, fine," said Marion Hammer, the NRA's Florida lobbyist, claiming she had the votes to advance in the House, but wanted to stop a misinformed debate. "We'll see in the end."
Whether people should take guns to work has fueled an unlikely battle between powerful Republican lobbies. The chamber and the Florida Retail Federation don't usually clash with the NRA, an organization that tends to get its way with Florida lawmakers.
The conflict pits the private property rights of business owners against the Second Amendment rights of gun owners. Companies want to retain the right to make their own policies about whether or not employees can bring guns on their property.
Florida law allows gun owners to keep weapons in their cars, but many employers prohibit guns. The NRA says these policies, such as one at Walt Disney World, keep Florida's more than 6-million gun owners from exercising their Second Amendment rights.
Lakeland Republican Rep. Dennis Ross could speak from both sides.
"I'm sorry that we have to come to this crossroad where I have to make a decision between what I think are two very fundamental rights," said Ross, who said he belongs to the NRA, numerous hunting organizations and even holds a permit to carry a concealed weapon.
But he couldn't support the NRA's bill.
"While I believe that my Second Amendment rights are very important to me, as a business owner my private property rights are (paramount)," said Ross, a lawyer.
As the debate turned, it became clear that no one was happy with the compromise proposed after the measure first stalled in the House Judiciary Committee two weeks ago.
Gun advocates had agreed to consider such options as permitting gun owners to check firearms at work, and to park gun-loaded vehicles in specially designated spaces. And they also would have reduced the proposed punishment from a felony to a $10,000 civil fine. Business groups wanted the bill to have extensive liability waivers.
"Although we were getting very close to a deal, it just was not coming to fruition," said David Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs, chairman of the House committee.
But the concept on the table amounted to "a so-called solution desperately seeking a problem" said committee member Jack Seiler, D-Pompano Beach.
To many, the move to table the debate without a vote sounded like a defeat for the NRA.
"They were afraid of the vote," said Kevin Ambler, R-Lutz, a committee member. "They were afraid if they took a vote today the sentiment of the committee was that it would fail."
So the fight continues, with lobbyists on both sides accusing each other of negotiating in bad faith.
At the Florida chamber, Wilson vowed to fire up a grass roots business lobby to make sure the NRA proposal doesn't return. That could mean everything from television ads to asking members of local business chambers to send e-mails in opposition.
"Now it's time to just go kill this bill the way it should have been done today," said Wilson, who doesn't expect the NRA to give up. "The NRA in Florida, as far as I know, never lost a bill before. . . . We're in uncharted territory. They're unpredictable."
That said, he's willing to look at a completely new deal, if one surfaces in a few weeks.
"Nobody said it was easy," said Hammer, the NRA lobbyist. "We just said it was right."
Letitia Stein can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (850) 224-7263. Staff writer Steve Bosquet contributed to this report.