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State senate passes watered-down gun-rights bill

ATLANTA - Georgia senators passed a compromise gun-rights bill Thursday, hoping to defuse a bitter dispute between two of the Republican Party's staunchest allies.

The legislation, which was approved 41-15, would allow motorists to carry a gun inside their car anywhere they wish. Current law restricts firearms to being stored inside the glove compartment or in plain view.

But the bill's most controversial provision, which senators added to the original House measure, would prohibit business owners from forbidding their workers from leaving guns inside their cars parked in employee lots that are also accessible to the public.

The National Rifle Association pushed hard for the provision last year, part of a multi-state campaign for employee gun rights stemming from an incident in Oklahoma, where Weyerhaeuser Corp. fired eight workers for violating a company policy against keeping guns in their cars at work.

The NRA threatened to condition their endorsements of Georgia lawmakers on how they voted on the bill.

But the measure died late in last year's General Assembly session when the Georgia Chamber of Commerce objected that the provision would violate the private property rights of business owners.

Determined not to repeat last year's divisive battle, the bill's Republican backers crafted a compromise that would significantly limit the provision's impact.

Under the compromise approved Thursday, the parking-lot provision would only apply to the approximately 300,000 Georgians holding state-issued firearms licenses.

To satisfy the chamber, it also stipulates that any property owner who wishes to ban firearms from his property may do so.

"This bill is only about the relationship between employers and employees," said Sen. Chip Rogers, R-Woodstock, the bill's sponsor.

Gov. Sonny Perdue spoke out publicly against the bill in a speech on Tuesday, but then went to work behind the scenes to help shape the compromise.

"These were the types of constraints we were asking for," the governor said Thursday shortly before the legislation hit the Senate floor. "This is the proper balance between the Second Amendment and our precious property rights."

Senators also made several other changes to the bill, including a provision allowing owners of state firearms licenses to carry their weapons at state parks and historic sites.

Supporters cited this month's murder of Meredith Emerson, 24, of Buford, who was killed while hiking at a state park in North Georgia.

The bill now goes back to the House for a vote on the Senate changes.