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Bill To Allow Guns In Churches That Share Spaces With Schools Clears Florida House

The roofline of a church
Nagesh Badu
Bill to allow guns in churches

A measure that would allow people to carry in guns in churches and other religious institutions, even when they’re attached to schools, has passed in the Florida House. Supporters say it’s a property rights issue. But many Democrats are raising concerns about what the measure could mean for guns in classrooms.

Rep. Jayer Williamson (R-Pace) is sponsoring the measure in his chamber. In a speech on the House floor, he said the measure is about protecting the First and Second Amendment rights of constituents as well as their private property rights. "It's not often that you're going to get a chance to walk into this chamber and expand something that is the foundation of our country," Williamson said.

The bill passed the House on a 76 to 37 vote largely along party lines.. Williamson said he doesn’t understand some of the reasons lawmakers have brought up for voting against the measure.

“Something we heard in committee...was people getting a call from a pastor or a priest at home saying ‘don’t vote for this bill. We don’t want this to happen.’ I can’t fathom people petitioning their government for them not to be able to do with their property whatever they want to do with their property. It makes no sense to me at all," Williamson said.

Rep. Andrew Learned (D-Riverview) said for him the issue goes far beyond property rights.

“To be honest, in the fist committee I was totally supportive of this bill. I wanted to vote for it. I thought if we wanted to put guns in churches, that’s fine. I might not go to that church, but that’s their prerogative and I was totally cool with that,” Learned said

Learned, who has served in the Navy and Navy Reserve, said his feelings about the measure changed when he felt he couldn’t get a clear answer for what that means for guns in classrooms that are part of a church.

“We had three different interpretations over the two committees that followed about the guns in classrooms piece. And I’ve carried an M4 rifle in combat. I’ve fired an M4 rifle. I used to carry a 9 millimeter pistol and I’ve seen what these weapons can do and I have 8-year-old twins. And that’s why I am so deadest against putting guns in kids' classrooms,” Learned said.

Learned said he doesn’t buy the argument the legislation is about property rights. He says if it were, lawmakers would have taken opportunities offered through amendments to focus their bill on that.

“This isn’t about property rights. Everybody supports those portions of this bill. There’s plenty of good pieces, there were plenty of good amendments that would have worked through the process that would have made this so we could have supported it," Learned said. "But if we’re drawing the line and if the stated purpose is to put guns in classrooms, I’m a hard no and I always will be.”

Rep. (D-Aventura) Joseph Geller voiced similar concerns. He said especially following the 2018 Parkland high school shooting in Florida that left 17 people dead, he can’t understand a move that could lead to more weapons in classrooms.

“We talk a lot in here about schools and about students. We talk a lot about what our students have a right to expect. And certainly in this state we’ve seen some horrific examples of what can happen at our schools,” Geller said.

Geller said he doesn’t have a problem with religious institutions making the decisions they think are best for their churches or temples. But he said that’s different from a decision about what’s best for a kid trying to go to school.

“If you’re a third grader, and you’re sitting in a school on your school grounds in your classroom on school time, you have a right to know that you’re sitting there safe. Every student does in every school,” Geller said.

The measure will head to the Senate next where a similar bill is working its way through the committee process.

Follow @Regan_McCarthy

Regan McCarthy covers healthcare and government in Tallahassee, Florida. She is the Assistant News Director for WFSU Public Media.

Phone: (850) 645-6090 | rmccarthy@fsu.edu

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