Disney under fire

Battle lines have been drawn after a Disney employee was sacked for bringing a .45-calibre pistol to

Ever since the chilling words "Man is in the forest" shattered the peaceful world of Bambi, Walt Disney has been considered a suspect company by the US gun lobby. The gunshots that ring out in the forest hardly give viewers the warm glow expected of a Hollywood animated children's film.

Parents and offspring are left wondering whether the young buck Bambi and his father have been shot dead for human sport. Earlier, Bambi's mother is slaughtered by hunters.

The decision by the managers of Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando, Florida, the most visited tourist attraction in the world, to sack an employee for bringing a .45-calibre pistol to work has only added to the general mistrust of the company by those who revere the American constitution's guarantee of the right to bear arms. The battle lines have been drawn in a dispute over the contentious Second Amendment that may have to be settled by the Supreme Court.

In July a new law came into effect in Florida allowing those with a concealed gun permit to take their guns to work. The response from Disney was immediate: to protect the company's 62,000 workers and the millions who visit Disney's four Orlando theme parks each year, employees were informed that the new law did not extend to them. Even if, as the legislation suggested, staff were to keep their guns locked in their cars.

The ban prompted a response from Disney's Animal Kingdom worker Edwin Sotomayor, 36, who announced he would test the legality of the company's policy by bringing a gun to work and daring his managers to take it away from him. He was met by a phalanx of Disney security men who demanded to inspect the boot of his car, where he had put his pistol.

Sotomayor refused, claiming that the search defied both the First Amendment, which allows peaceful protest, and the Second, which permits all sane people to carry guns. Disney promptly sacked him, ostensibly for refusing to comply with a company investigation, though it also argued that under legislation deterring terrorism it can ban guns from Disney premises, as its nightly fireworks make the company a keeper of explosives.

Inevitably, the National Rifle Association has become involved. "It' s typical of Disney," said the NRA's Marion Hammer. "They have no regard for the safety of their customers or their employees." Disney's Zoraya Suarez responded: "We will continue to maintain our zero-tolerance policy for guns and workplace violence."

Sotomayor, who claimed he needed a gun to protect himself on his commute to work, accused Disney of authoritarianism. "They want to control government. They want to control society," he said. He received support from the Republican senator Durell Peaden, who championed the change in the law. "I intended it to exempt places like defence plants, air force bases, things like that. But not Disney. Not at all," he said.

A preliminary hearing left the dispute suspended until October, though no one imagines that it will be settled quickly. A written constitution ensures not only a litigious society, but that even the smallest of cases can become a test of the most profound principles.

In the meantime, the history of Walt Disney's anthropomorphic animation is coming under close scrutiny. From the start, Walt promoted the welfare of wild animals and in dozens of Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck cartoons he presented hunters as primitive, murderous thugs.

Although the studio's founder has long been denigrated for exploiting his artists, it appears the old tyrant was a romantic environmentalist all along.

Nicholas Wapshott’s Keynes Hayek: the Clash That Defined Modern Economics is published by W W Norton (£12.99)

This article first appeared in the 04 August 2008 issue of the New Statesman, China: The patriot games