The rights of employers in Florida, Georgia and Alabama to control the presence of guns on their property and to set the terms and conditions of the workplace are in the crosshairs of the National Rifle Association.
Bills pending in those states are among the latest in the powerful gun lobby's fight to ensure employees the right to keep guns in their vehicles while at work.
Four states already have such laws on the books, and legislation is pending in seven others. But Florida--a high profile, trendsetter state--is emerging as the key battleground between the NRA and anti-gun groups led by the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence.
Florida was the first state to pass NRA-backed legislation permitting almost anyone except convicted felons to carry concealed weapons, and 35 states followed.
"They intend to follow the same pattern with the take-your-guns-to-work bill," says Brian Siebel, senior attorney for the Brady Center's Legal Action Project.
Identical bills introduced last year in the Florida House and Senate are poised for action when the legislature reconvenes in March. Those bills prohibit employers and other property owners from making any rules banning guns from locked vehicles in a parking lot or garage, and make violation of the law a third degree felony. The proposed law would apply to homeowners and landlords, as well as employers. But the focus is clearly on companies that ban guns in parking lots.
Many companies have such policies to ensure the safety of the workplace, says Matthew Stubbe, employment attorney in the Chicago office of Fisher & Phillips. He cites a Mississippi case where a Lockheed Martin worker retrieved guns from his vehicle and went on a rampage, killing five and injuring nine before taking his own life. In subsequent litigation, the courts held that criminal acts are not covered under workers' compensation, opening up the employer to claims for damages.
While gun opponents cite the Mississippi incident as a case in point for no-guns policies, gun advocates point to an Oklahoma case, pending in the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals, brought by Weyerhaeuser employees fired for keeping firearms in their vehicles parked in the company lot. That action spurred the Oklahoma legislature to pass a law, now being tested in a separate suit, barring rules against guns in parking lots.
State Rep. Dennis Baxley (R-Ocala), House sponsor of the Florida legislation, says he was motivated by the Weyerhaeuser case.
"If a person legally possesses firearms, he should not be discriminated against by his employer," Baxley says. "They can't discriminate against women or minorities, so there is no reason they should be able to discriminate against gun owners."
However, companies are concerned that allowing guns onto their property creates a danger to the rest of the workforce and makes them liable if anyone is injured or hurt as a result. Baxley's bill includes a no-liability clause, which he says protects employers against being sued if someone is injured or killed by a firearm that has been legally stored in a vehicle.
Stubbe says such clauses do not allay his concerns about employer liability.
"Potential liability claims for acts of gun violence could be brought under a number of theories, including negligent hiring, negligent supervision and negligent retention," Stubbe says. Until the scope of the no-liability clauses is tested in the courts, the protection they afford is questionable, he adds.
So far, Florida employers are not front-and-center in the debate. Only Iron Mountain, a Boston-based records management company with facilities in Florida, stood up to be counted against the bill when the Brady Center held a press conference in Tallahassee in December.
Some say the NRA is intimidating the business community. The organization last summer announced a boycott against ConocoPhillips, which is fighting the Oklahoma statute, saying it would "spare no effort or expense" to work against companies it views as anti-gun. (Calls to NRA headquarters were not returned.)
Others say Florida business owners have divergent views on the topic.
Barney Bishop, president of Associated Industries of Florida, which lobbies for business interests, says he expects an upcoming survey to find members on both sides of the issue.
"Up here in North Florida, it's common to hunt early in the morning, before work," he says. "Keeping a loaded gun in your vehicle is taken for granted. At the same time, we understand the property rights issues involved."
But John A. Rogers, Jr., general counsel of the Florida Retail Federation, says his association is concerned about the bill and will oppose it as currently drafted.
"We see it as more a right-to-work, employment-at-will issue than a gun issue," he says.
Spokespersons for two of Florida's largest employers, Walt Disney World and Publix Super Markets, both of which ban guns in their parking lots, say their companies are waiting to see if the bills change as they move through committee hearings before taking a position.
Siebel says it's time for companies to speak out.
"Corporations don't understand what is coming down the pike," he says. "The NRA will try to push aggressively to pass legislation before corporate America wakes up to the fact that their rights are being stripped away."