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Politics

Guns-at-work bill defeated

Lawmakers say the Virginia Tech tragedy didn't influence them.

By ALEX LEARY and SHANNON COLAVECCHIO-VAN SICKLER
Published April 19, 2007


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photo
[AP Photo/NBC]
Virginia Tech gunman Cho Seung-Hui points a pistol at the camera while taping material he sent to NBC News.

TALLAHASSEE -- Afterward, nobody said it was about Virginia Tech.

Lawmakers called it a victory for property rights, a triumph of common sense. They insisted the votes they cast Wednesday to defeat a bill to allow employees to keep guns in their cars at work are the same votes they would have cast if not for Virginia Tech.

Still, the pall of the mass slaying hung over the House committee.

As the hearing opened, a lawmaker suggested postponing a discussion of the bill in light of the Virginia Tech tragedy. He called consideration of the bill highly inappropriate.

But the committee pushed on and soon after voted 10-4 against the measure, providing a highly visible setback to the National Rifle Association at a moment when gun violence is on the national stage.

"How can you not be impacted at least on some level by as horrific a tragedy as that was in our country?" Gov. Charlie Crist said when asked if he thought the campus slayings influenced the vote.

Last year, after some heel dragging, the House approved this measure. But the Senate wouldn't consider it. This year, the Senate was looking favorably on the proposal.

"It's a big win for the people of Florida and for private property rights," declared Mark Wilson, executive director of the Florida Chamber of Commerce.

Marion Hammer, the NRA's tenacious lobbyist, pledged to get the legislation re-filed next year.

"Nothing in this bill would have anything at all to do with the sort of thing that happened in Virginia," she said.

Rep. Baxter Troutman, a gun-friendly Republican from Winter Haven, tried to stop Wednesday's debate before it began by invoking the killings.

"All anyone has to do is turn on CNN, MSNBC or any of the 24 hour news channels," he said. "I just think this subject today, in this committee meeting, in this Florida Legislature is highly inappropriate."

His motion to postpone the debate failed. "Part of the job is to vote on difficult issues and sometimes that is hard to avoid," said Rep. Stan Mayfield, chairman of the Environment and Natural Resources Council.

Not long after, Mayfield joined Troutman and other Republicans in opposing the bill. Rep. Rich Glorioso, R-Plant City, sided with the NRA.

With the vote cast, angry e-mails arrived in the lawmakers' in boxes.

"This will be remembered at election time!" wrote Mark Wittenberg, a shooting instructor from South Florida. "Virginia Tech is an example why law abiding citizens carry concealed (weapons) and should be empowered to do so."

He concluded: "I hope that at one point in your life, on a personal level, you feel the ramifications of your actions pertaining to this vote."

Support for the bill was shaky long before Monday's shootings because it divided two key Republican bases: business and the gun lobby. Many members hoped the issue would just go away and they would not have to side with one or the other.

But Hammer and her allies persisted. The Individual Personal Private Property Protection Act of 2007 would have barred employers from any policies limiting "legal" products from vehicles.

The broad language elicited ridicule from opponents who said that could include pornography and snakes -- legal items that may not be appropriate for a workplace.

But at its core, the issue had always been about gun rights.

"This bill is about staying alive to get to work and staying alive to get home after work," Hammer said. "There can be no stronger right than the right of self-protection."

Rep. Dennis Baxley, the bill sponsor, told the story of a friend who was going to work when a man approached his car, stopped at a traffic signal, with a crowbar. His friend pulled out his gun and the man retreated, Baxley said.

"If my friend ... did not have the right to carry a firearm for personal protection, he would be dead today," said Baxley, R-Ocala.

Members of the Environment and Natural Resources Council have been besieged with e-mail from opponents and proponents. Some incorporated the Virginia Tech shootings.

"I am very sorry for the grave incident at Virginia Tech, but in reality, it goes to show that we are all ultimately responsible for our own protection," Art Jacobs, an NRA member from North Fort Myers, wrote to Rep. Denise Grimsley.

Grimsley, R-Lake Placid, said it was not a motivation. Rather, she said, there was no evidence employees' cars were being searched.

"I just don't think this law is necessary," said Rep. Rick Kriseman, D-St. Petersburg.

A hunter since boyhood, Rep. Bryan Nelson, R-Apopka, said he still felt gun rights do not trump property rights.

"Employers have to be sure there's a safe workplace," he said. "If something goes wrong in their parking lot, they're going to be sued."

The House's move stunned Sen. Paula Dockery, chairwoman of the Senate's law and justice policy and calendar committee. She was planning to send the Senate version of the bill to the floor next week for a vote.

"But we don't want to waste time on the floor with bills that don't have a House companion," she said.

She said the shootings at Virginia Tech were tragic, but had no relation to the proposed legislation here.

"The bill isn't about what happens at a university; it's about what happens to a person who is lawfully allowed to carry a gun and being allowed to keep it in their car. I don't see the relevance between what the bill is trying to accomplish and what happened at Virginia Tech."

Hammer made similar comments eight years ago when another high-profile incident -- the Columbine High School shootings -- led lawmakers to cancel a vote on a bill that would have prevented cities and counties from suing gun makers and dealers.

[Last modified April 19, 2007, 06:04:03]


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