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Big business to NRA: Not so fast

In a rare reversal of fortunes, the National Rifle Association's legislative priorities are facing resistence from the Republican-controlled Florida Legislature.

Published April 3, 2006



TALLAHASSEE - Vickie Carver does not like to miss Mondays at Shooting Sports on N Dale Mabry Highway in Tampa. It's ladies night.

"Some people like to play golf," said Carver, 46. "I like to shoot."

But getting to the gun range is suddenly less convenient. While Carver is accustomed to packing her .22-caliber Marlin rifle in the trunk of her Buick Park Avenue before leaving for work, she recently learned her employer forbids firearms.

"I don't want to break the rules," said Carver, executive assistant to the CEO of a specialty pharmacy. "But I'm not an outlaw and I don't want to be treated like one."

Carver has joined thousands of other Floridians to rally behind a National Rifle Association-backed bill that would penalize businesses that ban weapons in locked cars. Tenacious and well-organized, the NRA usually gets its way.

Not this time.

In a reversal of fortunes not seen in Tallahassee in two decades, the NRA is losing to an unlikely adversary: big business.

The NRA's other legislative priority, requiring gun and bait shops to offer customers voter registration information, also drew resistance from business and has been scaled back.

The NRA was dealt another setback on Monday when a Senate Environmental Preservation Committee voted to reconsider until next week a measure that would allow guns in national forests and state parks. The measure initially passed, then Sen. Rod Smith, D-Alachua, asked to have it reconsidered, because he's concerned about guns in state parks.

The clash of lobbying heavyweights has trapped the Republican-controlled Legislature in philosophical quicksand and may have exposed the limits of the the NRA and its star lobbyist, Marion Hammer.

Known for her forceful manner, bright red jackets and diminutive stature, Hammer has been a force in the Legislature for more than 20 years. Last year, she was enshrined in the Florida Women's Hall of Fame.

She is revered by some and loathed by others, but never underestimated.

"She's had the Florida Legislature wrapped around her finger for many years. But she's finally met her match," said Brian J. Siebel, an attorney with the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence in Washington.

Indeed, if there is a more influential force in Tallahassee, it is big business.

The NRA "overreached by about a 100 miles on this one," said Mark Wilson, executive director of the Florida Chamber of Commerce, which has joined with other business groups to oppose the so-called parking lot bill.

With the 60-day session nearly half over, it has yet to pass through a single committee in the House or Senate. It has been stalled for the past month in the House Judiciary Committee, where Republicans have a 11-3 advantage.

"We were surprised when NRA stepped out and called for bigger government," said Wilson, whose organization represents 137,000 employers. "We ought to be leaving this decision up to property owners and leaving the government out of it."

Hammer does not waver. She accuses "corporate giants" such as Publix and Disney, which forbid firearms on company property, of trampling on rights afforded in the state and U.S. constitutions.

Siebel is the author of a recent report detailing the NRA's effort to force businesses to accept guns at work. Under the Florida bill, and legislation being considered in other states, employers would be fined for preventing workers from keeping firearms locked in their vehicles.

The report cites an American Journal of Public Health study concluding that workplaces where weapons were allowed were five to seven times more likely to have a worker homicide than businesses that did not.

"That's nonsense," said Hammer. She cited federal data showing 84 percent of workplace homicides involve strangers.

Florida business groups say violence is a concern, but they have framed their opposition in terms of another sacred ideal in Tallahassee: private property rights.

They say the right to carry a weapon does not trump an employer's right to establish policy.

"The reality is, everybody was just fine before this bill was filed," said Rick McAllister, president of the Florida Retail Federation. "Nobody was complaining they couldn't take their gun where they wanted to."

McAllister says the NRA misfired by applying a global view to a situation in Oklahoma. A company there fired 12 workers who had guns in their cars, leading to a law in 2004 similar to what the NRA envisions in Florida.

ConocoPhillips and other big corporations sued to have the Oklahoma law overturned. The NRA responded by buying billboard space blasting ConocoPhillips as an enemy of the Second Amendment.

In Florida, business interests are working to prevent it from getting that far. The bill has created a sort of running joke because it has been scheduled repeatedly before the House Judiciary Committee, only to be pulled the morning of debate.

Last Tuesday was no exception, marking the fifth straight delay. As he had before, committee chairman David Simmons, R-Longwood, said a compromise was near. Both sides later discounted that.

It's expected to come up again today.

Hammer remains confident. "They have made it difficult, which is part of what they intended to do," she said. "Nobody said it was going to be easy. We just said it's right."

Rep. Dennis Baxley, the Ocala Republican who sponsored the bill, said he is committed as well, even though he feels the squeeze of two allies. He said if he could do it over again, his bill would have just dealt with illegal searches of vehicles.

"We could have stayed out of some of the business issues," Baxley said.

But the lobbying juggernaut is in full swing. Both the NRA and the Brady campaign have launched efforts to prod voters to e-mail lawmakers. Thousands of missives have poured in from across the state and beyond, with a majority in favor of the bill.

A St. Petersburg man wrote that his wife was fired from her job for having a gun in her car. "She carried a firearm for her protection. She had to start work at 4 a.m., in the dark, the sole employee, in a part of town that was not the best," he wrote.

A bookshop owner in Brandon wrote in opposition, adding, "The new law here in Florida that allows one individual to shoot another for even the suggestion of a threat is ludicrous enough."

The Florida Chamber of Commerce sent out faxes on the proposal. Ninety percent who responded opposed the bill, a chamber spokeswoman said.

One of the faxes rolled into Vickie Carver's office in Tampa. "I was appalled," she said. "I don't have a criminal record. I don't have a history of poor judgment. So I should be able to carry my firearm."

Carver received the .22-caliber Marlin last year as a present for her 22nd wedding anniversary. She thought nothing of bringing the rifle with her to work on Mondays, knowing it was secured in the trunk. But after learning about the pending legislation, she found out her employee handbook forbids that.

Now her only hope is Marion Hammer and the NRA.

"If it really came down to it," Carver said, "I may have to find another parking lot and walk to work. Hopefully it won't come down to that."

Staff writers Steve Bousquet and Jennifer Liberto contributed to this report.

[Last modified April 3, 2006, 22:55:13]

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