House passes bill expanding gun rights to churches with schools

School Supplies and Handgun
The bill provides an exception allowing guns on school property, if it is on church property.

A bill expanding the places gun owners can carry their weapons passed the House Friday in a 76-37 vote.

Under the bill (HB 259), gun owners would be allowed to carry their guns in a church, even if a school is on the church grounds, as long as the owner of the property allows it.

This legislation originated in the Education and Employment Committee and is sponsored by Representatives Jayer Williamson and Cord Byrd. It’s not the first time such legislation has come up, but it is the first time the bill cleared the full House.

Williamson has been describing the bill, supported by the National Rifle Association, as “private property rights reform” and a bill to “fix a glitch” in private property law, maintaining not an expansion of gun rights.

“While it will always be painted as a gun rights bill, this is a private property rights issue,” Williamson said.

But some Democrats felt the bill walked back the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Act (SB 7026), which passed just three weeks after the Parkland shooting.

“This house took a stand after Parkland. It took a stand and said, our students should be kept safe. It was the right thing to do. I supported that,” said Broward Rep. Joseph Geller. “The title of this is ‘at religious institutions.’ That’s really not where there’s any question here. But if you’re a third grader, and you’re sitting in a school, on your school grounds, in your classroom, on school time, you have a right to know that you’re sitting there safe. Every student does in every school.”

The Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Act was aimed at shoring up school security and safety by raising the minimum age for buying a gun from 18 to 21, banning bump stocks, allowing for the seizure of guns from people who are committed under the Baker Act, expanded the state’s gun-buying background requirement to all guns, not just handguns, and created a commission to investigate failures in the system that have led to school shootings. A controversial piece of that legislation allowed teachers who receive training to be armed while at school, dubbed the Guardian program.

Navy veteran Rep. Andrew Learned, a Democrat, voted in favor of the new bill in its first committee, but stopped supporting the legislation after he determined the statute changes would put guns in schools when they are on church grounds.

“We have three different interpretations over the two committees that followed, about the guns in classrooms piece. And I’ve carried an M-4 rifle in combat. I’ve fired an M-4 combat rifle. I used to carry in a nine-millimeter pistol, and I’ve seen what these weapons can do,” Learned said. “And this is why I am so dead set against putting guns in kid’s classrooms. This is not a hard thing for me. This isn’t about property rights. Everybody supports those portions of this bill. There were plenty of good amendments that would have worked through the process that could have made this so that we could have supported it. But if we’re drawing the line, and if the stated purpose of this is to put guns in classrooms, I’m a hard no. And I always will be.”

Under current Florida law, most gun owners cannot carry their gun on school grounds. The prohibition means people who want to carry guns on church grounds that have a school attached cannot do so.

Williamson’s bill would make an exception to current law to allow properly licensed gun owners to carry their gun “on any property owned, rented, leased, borrowed, or lawfully used by a church, synagogue, or other religious institution unless the religious institution has a policy specifically prohibiting the carrying of concealed firearms.”

It would mean a church with a pre-school attached could still allow guns on its premises, which according to the bill’s analysis, is necessary because “following a series of mass violence incidents at churches and synagogues, many religious institutions have formed volunteer church security teams”.

Senate companion legislation (SB 498) is in the Rules Committee, the last of three committee stops.

Haley Brown

Haley Brown covers state government for Previously, Haley covered the West Virginia Legislature and anchored weekend newscasts for WVVA in Bluefield, W.Va. Haley is a Florida native and a graduate of the University of Florida. You can reach her at [email protected].


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