Florida Firms Fight to Keep Gun-Free Workplace
State Law Allows Workers to Carry Weapons in Cars
By DAN SLATER
August 18, 2008; Page A3
Several major Florida employers are trying to get around a law allowing workers to keep guns in their cars, even as a June U.S. Supreme Court ruling supporting the right to keep handguns at home has emboldened national gun-rights lobbyists.
Shortly after Gov. Charlie Crist signed into law a bill that says businesses must allow employees with concealed-weapons permits to keep guns in their cars in company lots, Walt Disney World Co. told employees it would stick to its no-guns policy. Disney claimed an exemption for employers who have a permit "to engage in the business of importing, manufacturing, or dealing in explosive materials" -- in this case, the fireworks the company uses nightly to brighten the skies over four of its Florida theme parks. The company is a unit of Walt Disney Co.
At least three other businesses in Florida -- NBC Universal's Universal Studios in Orlando, the Jacksonville electric authority, and a toilet-paper plant owned by Georgia-Pacific LLC -- also surprised the law's supporters when they, too, claimed to be a gun-free workplace due to a variety of exemptions to the new law, which took effect July 1. The Florida Attorney General said Friday that Disney's exemption complies with the new law and the office is in discussion with the other businesses. NBC Universal is a unit of General Electric Co.
The fight over carrying concealed weapons has intensified in some states since the Supreme Court ruling on handguns in the home. The court didn't address where guns might be carried.
Now, employers across the country are facing new dilemmas about how and when to allow weapons on company property, as they try to balance the Second Amendment rights of their employees with federal laws requiring them to provide a safe workplace. In some instances, the business community finds itself at odds with the goals of the powerful gun lobby.
Florida is one of at least nine states to pass legislation allowing people to bring guns to workplace parking lots. This year, the Harrold, Texas, school district will allow employees who have licenses to bring concealed firearms onto campuses, saying they were needed to protect against school shootings.
Other states are facing legal battles over their guns laws. In Georgia, a gun-rights advocacy group is suing to stop the state from enforcing a gun ban at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport.
The current debate over guns at the workplace began in 2002 when Weyerhaeuser Co. used search dogs to find drugs parked in vehicles at its Valliant, Okla., paper mill and in the process found 12 cars containing guns in violation of a company policy prohibiting firearms. Several employees were fired, galvanizing support among gun-rights advocates for laws expressly permitting licensed owners to keep their weapons in their cars while at work. A spokeswoman for Weyerhaeuser declined to comment.
Two years later, Oklahoma lawmakers barred employers from prohibiting "any person, except a convicted felon" from bringing a gun to work. Last year, a federal judge struck down the law, saying that it violated federal guidelines put out by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which is charged with preventing work-related injuries. The state is appealing.
Personal protection is at the heart of Florida's guns-at-work law, says Republican representative Thad Altman, who voted for the bill. "A lot of women who carry firearms for personal protection want to be able to carry that firearm from, say, a dangerous apartment complex to their cars, and then back again at night," he said, citing a recent crime spree near Orlando. "If they can't have the firearm locked in their car at work, then they can't carry it for personal protection either."
Prior to the new legislation, Walt Disney World had a no-guns policy. In 2006, Disney fired a married couple for bringing a gun to work; they said they kept a gun in their car after being victims of a road-rage attack.
After the new law went into effect, Disney claimed the law didn't apply to it, frustrating the law's supporters. Wayne La Pierre, chief executive of the National Rifle Association, says the exemptions claimed by Disney and other Florida businesses are forcing employees to make "a Hobson's choice" between their job and personal protection. "When they're driving home at 2 a.m., Mickey Mouse isn't there to protect those people."
One former Disney employee believes that choice is unjust -- and was willing to stake his job on it. Edwin Sotomayor, a security guard who worked, most recently, in the Animal Kingdom, defied Disney by bringing his pistol to work on July 4, three days after the law took effect. Authorities met Mr. Sotomayor in the lot, and he was later fired. Now he is suing Disney to get his job back. Mr. Sotomayor and his lawyer declined to comment.
A spokeswoman for Disney says, "We believe that the exemption is clear. And we continue to maintain our policy against guns and workplace violence."
Critics say the new law increases the risk of workplace violence by making a gun available to an irate worker. Moreover, critics argue, the guns-at-work legislation provides no offsetting safety benefits because a law-abiding employee wouldn't have time, in the event of an assault in the parking lot, to access a gun locked inside a car.
Write to Dan Slater at email@example.com