Bill allowing guns at churches with schools triggers debate, but heads to Senate floor anyway

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A bill that would allow Floridians with concealed weapons permits to carry a gun in religious institutions, even if there is a school on the property, is on to the Senate floor. 

The Senate Rules Committee heard the House version of the bill (HB 259), which passed the chamber in a 76-37 vote near the end of March. Sarasota Republican Sen. Joe Gruters, who sponsored the Senate version of the bill (SB 498), presented it to the committee, which voted 10-6 to send it to the Senate Floor on a party-line vote.

Although Florida law does not prevent a person from carrying a gun into a religious institution, current statute does prohibit individuals from bringing firearms into houses of worship located on the same property as a school. This proposal would change that.

The bill would allow the religious institution to determine whether to ban guns. Facilities could even permit guns only during certain hours, potentially when classes aren’t in session.

“Obviously gun free zones don’t work, we can look at Chicago all the time,” Gruters said. “I go back to this bill being about private property rights — all we’re doing is we’re essentially closing the loophole that exists.”

The legislation would bridge the gap between security provisions for public and private schools passed after the 2018 massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. Private schools with churches would conceivably be able to hire private security under the bill.

Broward County Democratic Sen. Perry Thurston attempted to tack on an amendment to the bill, which ultimately failed, despite support during public testimony. The amendment sought to remedy the bill by requiring those carrying firearms to receive permission from such religious institutions, and by prohibiting firearms during school hours or at any time when extracurricular school-sponsored activities are taking place on the property.

“I think that we can certainly have a balanced approach, and that’s what we were seeking in some of the amendments,” Thurston said.

Gruters said it was an unfriendly amendment to the bill. Three speakers — The Florida Coalition to Prevent Gun Violence, the Florida Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Florida Council of Churches — each spoke in support of the amendment. 

After the amendment failed, Gruters faced a round of questioning from Democratic lawmakers.

Senate Democratic Leader Gary Farmer lamented potential conflicts the law may have if the religious center was used as a polling place or facility for a public meeting. Gruters, however, argued that the move would come down to contract law.

“I think that the contract law would stand,” Gruters said.If it said in the contract no guns on property or at this particular polling location, it gives religious institutions the authority to make whatever decisions they want that’s good for their particular campus, and if they sign a contract, I’m sure that they would agree to that then.”

Sen. Audrey Gibson followed, asking Gruters if parents would be notified if the institution began allowing guns on campus, to which Gruters responded once again that it would be up to the institution.

“I think every parent wants to make sure their child, whatever school they go to, is safe,” Gruters said. “This bill gives religious institutions the ability to make whatever decisions they want on their property. That’s why I always say this is more of a private property rights issue than a Second Amendment issue.”

The legislation sparked a wave of public testimony. The Florida Conference of Catholic Bishops, SPLC Action Fund, Florida Coalition to Prevent Gun Violence, Florida Council of Churches, Equality Florida and Florida Rising spoke in opposition.  

“Our solution to gun violence is not in guns, but helping to address the violent impulses that are in our society,” The Rev. Russell Meyer of the Florida Council of Churches said in opposition to the bill. “This is not the right answer. We need to allow our religious institutions to be sanctuaries.”

The Florida Citizens Alliance and the Protect Our Children Project spoke in support of the bill. 

“This has happened many times in malls, in schools, in churches, in theaters, where they were gun free zones, but somebody, some bad guy with a gun came in and took advantage of that,” said Heidi Daniels with the Florida Citizen Alliance. “And yes, a good guy with a gun will take care of a bad guy with a gun.”

Supporters reference a 2019 incident, in which a Texas churchgoer helped avert a shooting because of the state’s law, local law enforcement officials said. That man received contemporary praise as a “good guy with a gun.”  

“I‘ve got all kinds of people calling me every week, ‘Have you all been able to do anything, why can’t we have the freedom to take responsibility for ourselves?’” Ocala Republican Sen. Dennis Baxley said. “And this has made the difference in these incidents of stopping them before they killed 100 people, they killed one or two or three.”

But, for some, the legislation is just too much, especially amid the recent swell of mass shootings.

“We just need to get away from this gun obsession in this country,” Farmer said. “I think ensuring the safety of people who are going to a place of religious worship should be the preeminent thought, and I don’t think we should be encouraging a shootout at a church.”

In 2019, the House passed a version of the legislation, but the Senate version never made it past its first committee stop.

The bill was inspired by a similar law in Texas, passed after a mass shooting at First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs in 2017. Sponsors of the bill also reference the 2015 shooting at the Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina; the 2018 Tree of Life Pittsburgh synagogue shooting; and the 2019 Christchurch mosque shooting in New Zealand as evidence of rising attacks

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