The right of church-goers to carry concealed weapons in church collided Friday with Florida’s law declaring schools to be gun-free zones.
In the wake of mass shootings this month in Atlanta and in Boulder, Colo., gun violence and gun rights fueled debate Friday in the Florida House of Representatives, which adopted legislation allowing churchgoers to carry their weapons where churches and schools overlap.
House Bill 259, which passed 76-37 vote, lets churches allow guns on property where they host a school or on school property where they conduct church activities.
Rep. Joseph Geller, a Democrat representing parts of Broward and Miami-Dade, said HB 259 makes students who go to religious schools less safe than those who go to public schools.
“If the policy in this state, in the laws we adopt, is that guns should not be present on school campuses – members, don’t discriminate against children who go to religious schools,” Geller told the House members. “Don’t give them less rights. Don’t treat them differently.”
In addition, the bill allows guns to be carried during church activities conducted on school property leased from schools by churches.
Florida still has collective trauma over the deadly shooting massacre in 2018 of 17 students and teachers at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, which led to the Florida law authorizing gun-free school zones.
But supporters of the bill said churches near schools should have the same rights as churches distant from schools to carry concealed weapons in their midst. They argued that churchgoers want to carry guns to defend themselves in the event of a gunman attacking them.
Bill sponsor Rep. Jayer Williamson, a Republican representing parts of Okaloosa and Santa Rosa counties, told the House, “It’s not often you get to walk into this chamber and expand something that is a foundation of our country — and that is private property rights.”
Organizations such as The Florida PTA, League of Women Voters of Florida, and Florida Conference of Catholic Bishops testified against the bill in committee hearings.
Speakers representing the National Rifle Association (NRA) and Gunowners of America testified in favor of it.
The House bill must be approved by the state Senate and approved by the governor to become law.