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Firearms bill pits property owners’ rules against Second Amendment rights

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Republicans in the House may soon be put in the sticky situation of having to choose between two conflicting principles that form the bedrock of their party’s views on personal liberty: property rights and gun rights.

A bill that makes sweeping changes to the state’s firearms laws, SB1201, only got a hearing in the House Judiciary Committee after its sponsor and stakeholders agreed to work with the chairman to address some of the potential property rights issues. And even with that promise, it only narrowly passed the Republican-dominated committee with a 5-4 vote.

Already, gun rights advocates are making concessions in order to satisfy some of the concerns.

House Judiciary Committee Chairman, Rep. Eddie Farnsworth, R-Gilbert, held a stakeholder meeting March 28 that included members of the Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry — which opposes the bill, and the Arizona Citizens Defense League, a pro-Second Amendment advocacy group pushing the bill, to try and work out an amendment that would satisfy both groups.

The bill essentially requires that anyone entering a public place must be allowed to carry a firearm unless everyone passes through a metal detector to ensure no one is armed and storage lockers are provided for surrendered guns. The overall sentiment is to make sure that, in public areas, either everyone is allowed to have a firearm or no one is allowed to have a firearm.

Places where alcohol is being served have already been exempted, as have judicial buildings. But hybrid areas present a sticky situation: What about a high-rise that contains some government offices and some private businesses? What about stadiums that are publicly owned but used by private sports teams?

Farnsworth said that the definition of private and public property should be determined based on the way the property is used, a distinction that wasn’t made in the original bill.

“If you have a private building, but it’s being leased to a government agency, just because it’s being leased to the government doesn’t mean the government doesn’t have the same obligation,” he said. “The other side of it is, if you have a private use, the private use shouldn’t be ensnared in the Second Amendment.”

Applying that logic, in the high rise scenario, the property owner would have to permit people visiting the government office to bring guns into the common area, like a lobby. Banning firearms in areas the individual must pass through to get to the office would, in effect, restrict their ability to bring a gun into the office.

But the stadium requirement — one of the most hotly-contested provisions in the bill — will probably be stricken from the bill’s language, Farnsworth said.

That gets the measure about halfway to where Glenn Hamer, president and CEO of the Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry, would like to see it. So far, the organization has opposed the legislation specifically because of the property rights issues.

“Our position is that private property owners should be able to use their property as they see fit,” he said. “And we’re going to do everything we can to see that the final version of this bill respects the rights of private property owners.”

The conflict between property rights and gun rights is not a new one, as it seems to pop up every session with each new gun rights bill that’s introduced. But the conflict has the potential to split Republicans each time, placing the bill’s fate in jeopardy.

In the case of SB1201, Farnsworth already threatened to kill the bill, by not hearing it in House Judiciary before the deadline, unless the property rights issues were addressed.

“Gun rights do not trump private property rights,” he said. “That’s why my position is that this (should) not apply to private property.”

John Wentling, vice president of the Arizona Citizens Defense League, took a different stance than Farnsworth’s.

“I would argue that the right to self-defense is superior to all others,” he said.

However, he said he does not object to amending the bill so it doesn’t infringe on private property rights, as long as the amendments are reasonable.

The definition of public or private property by use, as Farnsworth proposed, is reasonable, he said, as is the exemption for sports stadiums.

Despite is predilection to favor property rights, Farnsworth acknowledged that a property owner “absolutely” loses some of his or her rights when leasing property to a government agency. But that’s to be expected when renting out any property, he explained.

“Whether you talk about a high rise or a home, when I rent (out) a home, I give up the right to come in and plop down and watch TV or rifle through your fridge, even if I own the property,” he said. “I’m essentially selling you that limited right.”

Not all Republicans are on board with his logic, however.

Rep. Cecil Ash, R-Mesa, was the lone Republican to vote against the bill in committee, out of his concerns for private property rights. Like Farnsworth, he was concerned about how sports stadiums might be affected, as well as common areas in mixed-use buildings.

But Ash didn’t go as far as to say he would vote against the bill on the floor if his concerns weren’t addressed.

“When you get these votes on the floor, sometimes it’s hard to balance these competing rights,” he said. “I’d have to see the final language in the bill.”

Rep. David Burnell Smith, R-Carefree, took a stronger position: Property owners, he said, absolutely should not have to allow guns in areas of their property besides those being used only by the government agency.

“If that’s not addressed, it’s a deal-breaker for me,” he said.

In the past, the Legislature has fallen on the side of preserving an individual’s constitutional right to carry a firearm.

During the 2009 session, SB1168 ignited the same controversy.

It barred property owners from prohibiting a person from carrying a firearm in his or her car, so long as the car is locked and the gun is out of sight.

Opponents argued that it should be up to the property owner to make that decision, but proponents countered that prohibiting a gun in a parking lot would mean the visitor would have to leave their gun at home, thus infringing on their right to keep the gun while they’re travelling to or from the property.

Ultimately, the Legislature came down on the side of the gun owners, with all Republicans voting in favor the bill.

But Rep. John Kavanagh, R-Fountain Hills and sponsor of the measure, said it wasn’t indicative of any sort of bias in favor of gun rights over property rights. There were many accommodations to property owners in the bill, he said, including requiring the vehicle be locked and the gun stored out of sight.

Rep. Jack Harper, R-Surprise and one of the House’s staunchest Second Amendment advocates, said that the exception was made in the case of  SB1168 because a parking lot could be an area where a person could easily be threatened.

“That’s why all of us were willing to set aside property rights arguments in order to put the right to keep and bear arms to defend yourself first,” he said.

But when there isn’t any sense of imminent danger for the individual, Harper said some Republicans may err on the side of property rights.

That’s why bills that had the potential to pit some Republicans against each other with regards to property rights or gun rights don’t often get to the floor, Kavanagh said. And that’s why there was so much work being done on this year’s proposal.

“When you get to private property that the public has open access to, it’s a gray zone. There needs to be a balancing act,” Kavanagh said. “If the pendulum swings too far one way, it can cause a fracture in the caucus.”

Though he said he would have to reserve final judgment until he sees the language of the amendment that Farnsworth and the bill’s sponsors offer, Hamer said the discussions so far have made him optimistic.

“It’s been encouraging,” he said. “At this point, negotiations are moving in a direction where we’re optimistic that the concerns we’ve raised will be addressed.”

If that happens, the Chamber would upgrade their position on the bill to “neutral.”

Proponents of the measure say they’re fine with making some concessions if it gives the bill a chance of passage.

Harper said he will support whatever version comes to the floor.

“If it makes any step toward my values, I’m happy,” he said.

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