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Florida House passes bill to expand gun rights in churches

Proponents say it merely closes a loophole in state law. Opponents say it would expand the rights of teachers to carry guns in schools.
Jillian Biltz, of Seminole, places a Sig Sauer MCX556 rifle on a display wall on Friday, June 19, 2020, at the Mad Dog Armory guns and ammo store in Largo. Gun sales in Florida are surging once again, this time due to protests against police brutality continuing in Florida and around the country. Local gun stores are swamped with customers.
Jillian Biltz, of Seminole, places a Sig Sauer MCX556 rifle on a display wall on Friday, June 19, 2020, at the Mad Dog Armory guns and ammo store in Largo. Gun sales in Florida are surging once again, this time due to protests against police brutality continuing in Florida and around the country. Local gun stores are swamped with customers. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Tampa Bay Times ]
Published Mar. 26
Updated Mar. 26

TALLAHASSEE — The Florida House passed a measure Friday that would expand the rights of Floridians to carry concealed weapons on the grounds of religious institutions.

The measure, HB 259, seeks to close what gun rights advocates say is a loophole in state law. Because it is a crime to possess a firearm on school property, some gun owners could face prosecution if they carry a weapon to a religious institution where a school is located, the bill’s proponents argue. The measure would make it legal to take a weapon to a place of worship even if it’s also the grounds of a school.

Under the law, religious institutions can continue to ban weapons from their premises if they wish.

“I consider this more of a glitch bill,” Rep. Jayer Williamson, R-Pace, said Thursday.

Opponents, however — including most Democrats in the chamber — said the bill was about bringing guns into the classroom.

Michael Sheedy, executive director of the Florida Conference of Catholic Bishops, argued earlier this month in a House committee that the bill would give teachers at religious schools too much leeway to carry concealed weapons to school if they wished.

In the wake of the Parkland school shooting, the Florida Legislature passed a bill in 2019 that allowed teachers to carry weapons in schools after they received training as part of a “Guardian program.” But Sheedy said that it is easier for a teacher to get a regular concealed carry permit than it is to get weapon-carrying certification from a guardian program.

Rep. Andrew Learned, D-Brandon, voted against the bill, saying, “If the stated purpose of this is to put guns in classrooms, I’m a hard ‘no’ and I always will be.”

Despite the controversy that comes with any gun rights bill, there was no mention by House members of the recent high profile mass shootings in Atlanta and Boulder as the measure was debated.

The House passed the measure 76-37 along broadly partisan lines.

The Senate version of the gun legislation, sponsored by Sen. Joe Gruters, R-Sarasota, appears to be moving through that chamber as well. If that bill clears one more committee, it could be heard on the Senate floor.

If the gun measure were to pass both chambers — and Gov. Ron DeSantis were to sign it — it would be the culmination of years of efforts by proponents of the legislation. Similar bills died in the Legislature each of the past three years.