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Employers seeking to bar firearms from their property received a solid vote of confidence Tuesday from the Utah Supreme Court.

The justices unanimously rejected the appeal of three former America Online Inc. employees in Ogden who were fired in September 2000 for violating the Internet company's no-firearms policy.

At issue was whether AOL's property rights trumped the constitutional right to bear arms when it came to the workers - Paul Carlson, Luke Hansen and Jason Melling - transferring guns between their vehicles in a parking lot outside their place of work.

Upholding a February 2002 ruling by 2nd District Judge Roger Dutson, the state's justices found that AOL was within its rights to extend its policy - signed by all its workers - to property under its control outside the workplace.

"We are pleased with the decision reached today by the Utah Supreme Court because the ruling reaffirms pertinent AOL workplace policies that govern employee safety," spokesman Nicholas Graham said.

"The big picture here is that an employer has the power to control its premises whether it owns or leases them, and to decide what happens on its premises," added Michael O'Brien, a Salt Lake City attorney who filed a pro-AOL friend of the court brief on behalf of the Utah Society for Human Resource Management, the Gun Violence Prevention Center of Utah and several business groups. Mitch Vilos, the fired trio's Centerville lawyer, said he and Salt Lake City co-counsel Robert Sykes would confer with their clients about any further appeals to the federal courts.

"I am disappointed and respectfully disagree with the court," Vilos said. "The bottom line of their holding is that the employer's property rights ares more important than the employees' life interest and liberty."

However, O'Brien stressed that the ruling should be seen less as a "pro- or anti-gun position," than "just that an employer ought to be able to choose."

"The state law has been unclear on this issue for years," O'Brien added. "This decision will give employers a clearer idea of what they can and cannot do when it comes to firearms."

Nonetheless, the lawyer warned gun-rights advocates in the Utah Legislature could easily unravel the ruling.

"We must be vigilant next legislative session to make sure employers and private property holders do not lose the right to make this important choice," O'Brien said.

It was a factor also recognized by the state's high court. In writing the opinion, Justice Ronald Nehring cited "an evolving discussion about the role of firearms in our society."

"While certain areas of that debate are more developed that others, [state law] rejects the idea that, in the face of a freely entered-into agreement to the contrary, an employee has the right to carry a firearm on the employer's premises," Nehring concluded.

Carlson, Hansen and Melling had sued AOL claiming their dismissals were improper because the company's anti-weapons policy, in application to a publicly accessible parking lot, violated gun-possession rights guaranteed by the Utah Constitution.

AOL contended that while the parking lot outside the company's Ogden offices is open to the public, AOL had leased 350 spaces specifically for its use. The nation's leading Internet service provider claimed it was therefore within its rights to extend the no-firearms policy of its building to its portion of the parking lot.

Plaintiffs' attorney Mitch Vilos argued that extending AOL's firearms policy to employees' private cars was overreaching, impinging not only on the right to bear arms, but the fundamental right to defend one's life.