Panel backs bill to allow guns in churches, private schools

Senator Debbie Mayfield, the chief sponsor of SB 1238.
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“This bill does not require schools or religious institutions to designate and authorize an individual to carry a firearm on its property. And it does not restrict the owners of a property from prohibiting firearms on their property, it simply extends the property rights of the owners,” Republican state Sen. Debbie Mayfield said as she laid out her controversial gun rights proposal to the Senate Judiciary Committee on Monday.

The measure, Senate Bill 1238 (Safety of Religious Institutions), is a property rights bill for religious institutions as well as private and religious schools. The bill allows religious institutions such as churches or synagogues as well as private and religious schools to authorize a person to carry a concealed weapon on property owned, rented, leased, borrowed or otherwise lawfully used by the institution.

A similar effort was shot down a year ago, reaching the Senate floor just as lawmakers’ attention shifted to the Feb. 14 mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland.

Supporters of the measure include the National Rifle Association and Sheriff Wayne Ivey of the Brevard County Sheriff’s Office, a prominent supporter of President Trump and Gov. DeSantis. He thanked the committee for hearing the bill and understanding its importance.

“This bill, and this subsequent piece of legislation, is vital to us being able to protect our houses of worship as well as our private schools,” Ivey said in his statement to the committee. “The state of Florida has put major emphasis on protecting our public schools. We have done all of the right things in that regard. The consequence is that we’ve left our houses of worship as well as our private schools vulnerable.”

Opponents of the bill include members of the Florida Chapter of Moms Demand Action. Beth Dumond, a volunteer for the group, told the committee how the proposal seeks to make any religious institution exempt from state firearms laws.

“Moms Demand Action understands religious institutions can be targets for violence and we believe that should religious institutions choose to have concealed weapons holders carrying on their premises, that is their choice,” Dumond said in her statement to the committee.

“But this bill provides that notwithstanding any other law, a religious institution can authorize a permit holder to carry a gun on any property they are using, whether it is leased, owned, or even borrowed. This bill seeks to invalidate any other gun law simply by virtue of a religious institution using a space,” said Dumond.

With very little debate, the controversial bill was passed by the Senate Judiciary Committee by a vote of 4-2 along party lines, with Democrats Audrey Gibson and José Javier Rodriguez voting against the measure.

SB 1238 has moved on to the Senate Criminal Justice Committee awaiting a hearing date. Companion legislation, HB 403, has been moving forward in the House.