Guns okay in churches near schools in FL? Lawmakers are pushing legislation on the issue

Students and alumni from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, with parents and other Parkland residents demonstrate together in the March For Our Lives on March 24, 2018. Credit: rmackman via Wikimedia Commons

Florida law already allows people to have a gun in church — but not if there’s a school nearby.

Now, some lawmakers want to allow guns within churches co-located with a school.

For example, a congregation leasing school property would not be barred from carrying concealed firearms there, under the bill. In another case, a church-run school on church property would now allow guns.

Critics say the legislation would weaken Florida’s gun-free school zones, but  the Senate Judiciary Committee on Monday approved the bill 7-4 along party lines.

Sponsor Joe Gruters, a Republican senator representing Sarasota and Charlotte counties, said his bill  — introduced in several prior legislative sessions by other sponsors — is “all about private property rights.” None of the prior bills passed.

Marion Hammer, former president of the pro-gun NRA and now head of Unified Sportsmen of Florida, said it’s all about gun rights.

“People who go to church are being deprived of the same rights that have when they go shopping,” Hammer said in testimony. “Just because a church has a private childcare program or a private pre-K program does not mean the government can hijack its private property.”

Sen. Tina Scott Polsky, an attorney and Democrat representing Broward and Palm Beach counties, said she received more than 1,000 emails from people opposed to Gruters’ bill and that she agrees with them that Florida should keep its clear-cut law banning firearms on both public and private school property.

“There’s a reason why guns are kept away from schools. Guns are just too dangerous,” Polsky said.

Specifically, SB 498 would authorize a person having a concealed weapons license to “carry a firearm on property owned, rented, leased, borrowed, or lawfully used by a church, a synagogue, or any other religious institution” notwithstanding Florida’s gun-free school zones, unless the institution forbids it.

During the debate, lawmakers and witnesses alluded to mass shootings at schools and churches.

Here are examples of those shootings:

/Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., in 2018,

/Sandy Hook Elementary School in New Haven, Conn., in 2012;

/Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pa., in 2018;

/Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C., in 2015.