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Gun bill debate renewed

ATLANTA - The 2008 Georgia General Assembly doesn't start until next week, but lobbyists already were at the Capitol Monday pushing both sides of a gun-rights bill that roiled the legislature last year.

The head of the National Rifle Association relaunched a campaign for legislation to prohibit businesses from forbidding employees to keep guns inside their cars parked in company-owned lots that are accessible to the public.

The NRA has made the bill a top priority in Georgia and other states since a mill in Oklahoma banned its employees from leaving guns in their cars while at work.

"This is a fundamental issue," Wayne LaPierre, the NRA's executive vice president, told reporters following meetings with lawmakers. "It is a blueprint for eviscerating and nullifying right-to-carry legislation in 38 states."

Four states, including Oklahoma, have enacted similar bills into law, and the legislation is pending in three others, including Georgia.

But the measure ran into stiff opposition in the General Assembly last year when the influential Georgia Chamber of Commerce fought it as a violation of business owners' property rights.

The NRA push for the bill also angered some longtime NRA members in Georgia, who complained that they hadn't been consulted by the national organization, while other Georgia gun-rights groups also joined the chorus against it.

On Monday, some of those opponents showed up at the Capitol to make sure their voices were heard.

While a couple of NRA members interrupted LaPierre's news conference, most quietly met with lawmakers and reporters.

"It is the American dream to own your own business," said Bob Thornton of Arnoldsville, who said he's been a member of the NRA since 1976. "Once I own property, I have a say in what goes on there, not somebody up in Washington."

But Chris Cox, the NRA's chief lobbyist, said business owners' private property rights can be restricted once they open that property to the public.

"Corporations are claiming they can disregard everyone's personal rights in the guise of corporate property rights," he said. "(But) when property owners open up a place to business, they consent to limits on property rights."

One of the groups opposed to the NRA-backed bill, GeorgiaCarry.org, has endorsed alternative legislation introduced by Rep. Tim Bearden, R-Villa Rica. The bill would significantly expand the right to carry guns in Georgia but would still uphold the right of business owners to ban firearms from their parking lots.

"I've got a bill that does a tremendous amount to protect gun owners," Bearden said. "The NRA is pushing a solution to a problem that, from what I've seen, has not occurred in Georgia."

The chamber put out an alert on Monday urging its members to bombard Georgia senators with phone calls and e-mails urging them to oppose the NRA-backed measure.

After passing the House last year, the bill died before reaching the Senate floor.

Sen. Preston Smith, R-Rome, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said senators will consider the bill carefully before acting.

"It is a delicate balance as we look at the competing interests," said Smith, who appeared at the NRA news conference with several other senators. "(But) we ought to be able to find a way for Georgians to be able to carry weapons if they need to."