Feb. 10, 2006--A Florida bill that critics say would guarantee people easy access to firearms at work has sparked debate over the rights of gun owners versus those of their employers.

The proposed bill, HB 129, would make it a third-degree felony for employers to prevent employees from storing firearms in their vehicles while parked on company premises. The bill touches upon numerous legal issues including Second Amendment rights, private-property issues, and employer-liability concerns that could thrust the debate over the bill into the national spotlight.

The bill's sponsor, Rep. Dennis Baxley, argues that the bill is just an extension of Second Amendment rights and is meant to protect employees during their commute to and from their place of business. "This is a matter of an employee's right to self-protection, and I'm convinced that this will make employees safer, especially during their drive to and from work," said Baxley, a Republican representing Ocala, Fla.

Of course, the idea of an employee having legally protected access to a weapon has drawn some concern about an employer's ability to keep the workplace safe. "This is a frightening prospect for employers," said Theresa Gallion, an attorney with Fisher & Phillips, a Tampa-based labor- and employment-law firm. "Under [the Occupational Safety and Health Administration], an employer has the duty to create a safe working environment. This law, as drafted, makes it very difficult for employers to achieve that."

Baxley, who owns a funeral-services company with close to 70 employees, says he is well aware of how this issue might affect business owners. "As the owner of a small business, I understand the concerns of the business community, and I'm hopeful we can reach a compromise," he said. "However, I can't accept the position that someone's property rights trumps the individual's Second Amendment rights to self-protection."

The proposed bill, which was filed in September and is scheduled to go to committee this month, includes a provision that would protect employers from being held liable for any "occurrence" which results from a firearm being stored in a vehicle on their premises.

Even with some Florida representatives offering compromises to the bill, including separate parking lots for gun-carrying employees or gun checkpoints, Gallion said the bill as a whole is "preposterous." "There is still a tremendous amount of risk," she said. "There is no reason for people to be armed in or anywhere near the workplace."

Baxley, however, disagrees. "Very simply, just because you are going to work doesn't mean you should have to check your constitutional rights at the door," he said.