A House panel gave its initial thumbs up Wednesday to a proposal allowing Floridians with concealed carry licenses to take a gun to religious institutions, even if there is a school on the property.
Florida law does not generally prevent a person from properly carrying a gun into a house of worship, but state law prevents people from bring firearms into schools. The bill (HB 259) would put the onus on individual houses of worship to determine whether to ban guns. Facilities could even permit guns only during certain hours, potentially when classes aren’t in session.
Members of the House Criminal Justice and Public Safety Subcommittee voted 14-3 to advance the bill, with three of the panel’s six Democrats casting votes in opposition.
Chairman Cord Byrd, one of the legislation’s co-sponsors, told members the bill was inspired by a similar law in Texas, passed after a mass shooting at First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs in 2017. He also listed 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 shootings in New Zealand as evidence of rising attacks.
In 2019, 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.”
“A firearm and a weapon is a tool that can be used for evil or it can be used for good, and we want to give good people the opportunity to do that,” Byrd told the panel.
The Neptune Beach Republican said the bill’s purpose is to follow in Texas’ footsteps.
The legislation would also 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 could now conceivably hire private security.
Lawmakers have recently attempted to pass a version of the bill, but those attempts have fallen flat. The Parkland shooting derailed those attempts when then-Gov. Rick Scott rolled back gun rights, banning people under 21 from buying assault weapons. In 2019, the House passed a version of the legislation, but the Senate version never made it past its first committee stop.
The panel’s top Democrat, Rep. Mike Grieco called the bill ambitious, but said he would vote in favor of it. That kept him consistent with his past votes.
“I’ve never loved the bill, and I definitely don’t like this version as well as the other ones,” Grieco said.
Other members of the caucus weren’t convinced. Rep. Andrew Learned was a member of the U.S. Navy, carried firearms during his service and experienced what those weapons can do, leaving him conflicted on gun matters involving children.
However, the Brandon Democrat’s opposition to the bill hinged largely on parts of the bill’s language. Cleaning up those issues, could help earn his support.
“I mentioned I’m not a lawyer. I talked to four of them today and I got three different interpretations of this bill,” Learned said.
Miami Rep. James Bush, a minister, said he doesn’t “believe in weapons,” but called them necessary to protect the community.
“If we cannot use weapons to protect the parishioners, what other method can we use to protect those who come in fellowship with us?” Bush asked.
Bush joined Grieco and Lauderdale Lakes Democratic Rep. Patricia Williams in support with Republicans.
Support and opposition from public groups fell along expected lines. Prominent National Rifle Association lobbyist Marion Hammer was among those speaking in support.
“The state has no more right to strip away the property rights of religious institutions because of childcare than it does to prohibit me or you from having guns in our homes because we babysit and care for children or grandchildren or homeschool our children or grandchildren,” Hammer said.
Pace Republican Rep. Jayer Williamson is the bill’s lead sponsor but was out sick Wednesday — not with COVID-19. Sarasota Republican Sen. Joe Gruters‘ identical version (SB 498) passed its first panel Wednesday month along party lines.
Williamson’s bill next heads to the House Education & Employment Committee.