Florida House committee eases gun restrictions at schools, churches

The sponsors say the bills would restore 2nd Amendment rights to Floridians who carry weapons.
Marion Hammer, chief NRA lobbyist in Florida, urges the Florida House Criminal Justice Committee on March 12, 2019, to approve legislation easing restrictions on who may carry guns at schools and churches. Both measures were reported favorably. [The Florida Channel]
Marion Hammer, chief NRA lobbyist in Florida, urges the Florida House Criminal Justice Committee on March 12, 2019, to approve legislation easing restrictions on who may carry guns at schools and churches. Both measures were reported favorably. [The Florida Channel]
Published March 12

A proposal (HB 403) to allow concealed weapons in churches operating on the same grounds as schools — deemed too controversial to move a year ago after the Parkland school shooting — cleared its first hurdle in the Florida House on Tuesday, with lawmakers contending it would protect clergy and parishioners.

The Criminal Justice Committee also advanced legislation to bar school districts from preventing adults over 18 from storing a firearm in their vehicle on school grounds.

Both bills had the strong support of the National Rifle Association.

“This bill corrects and problem with the current statute,” NRA lobbyist Marion Hammer said of the latter measure (HB 6005), sharing that she sometimes picks up a great-grandchild from school and has a weapon in her car.

“If I park in the lot, I’m committing a felony,” Hammer said. “That’s wrong.”

Representatives from Moms Demand Action, a group advocating gun control, spoke against each bill.

They suggested the first one, permitting churches adjacent to or inside schools to allow concealed carry, could expose children to gun violence. They represented the legislation as one that might allow guns in anyplace a church conducts business — perhaps even a prison ministry.

“This bill is dangerous for Florida, and in particular for Florida’s school children and college students,” Shannon Guse told the panel.

Rep. Mike Grieco, the committee’s ranking Democrat, rebuked speakers for making statements about guns getting into jails and schools, though, calling them “absolutely inaccurate.” He said such comments undermine the needed debate over gun safety.

He, like others on the committee, praised the bill as one that allows religious institutions to protect themselves as they see fit. He noted the bill would allow owners of property being leased to churches to reject the presence of weapons on the sites.

“It in no way limits the property rights of the individuals who may be leasing the property,” added Rep. Erin Grall, the bill sponsor.

She stressed that many religious institutions are limited in their right to provide a sense of security. “This is all about the authorization to do that.”

A similar measure had been moving in the House and Senate in Feburary 2018, until the Parkland shooting. They had been set for floor votes but then were withdrawn.

The second bill, regarding guns in cars parked on school grounds, met similar opposition from Moms Demand Action, as well as the League of Women Voters and other organizations.

Jamie Ito of Moms Demand Action told lawmakers that they had taken care to control weapons on school campuses, and urged them not to accept this idea. If anyone over 18 who owns a firearm can keep one in a car on campus, Ito said, what would prevent a parking lot argument from escalating?

“Why take any ability of school districts to prevent possibly dangerous people from bringing a gun on campus?” she asked.

Phil Archer, state attorney for the 18th Circuit (Brevard and Seminole counties) encouraged the committee to approve the legislation, which was a simple removal of the word “and” in the law about “student and campus parking.” He said when he teaches courses on concealed weapons, parents are surprised to learn that when they drive from work to school with a legal weapon secured in their car, they are criminalized.

“This bill protects the right of the school district to prevent students (from carrying weapons) ... but not otherwise law abiding parents or grandparents,” Archer said.

Committee members split on the bill, but gave their blessing to move it to the next committee stop

“It decriminalizes the potential behavior of thousands of parents,” said Rep. Heather Fitzenhagen, R-Fort Myers, who counted herself among them.

The Senate companion has not yet moved.

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