Approved Bills Would Allow Concealed Guns In Churches, Synagogues And Public Meetings

With supporters pointing to attacks on churches and synagogues, a House panel Tuesday approved a measure that would allow people to carry concealed weapons at religious institutions that share properties with schools.

The House Criminal Justice Subcommittee also approved a separate bill that would allow county commissioners, school board members and elected city officials to be armed at their public meetings.

State law generally allows people to carry concealed weapons at religious institutions, but it bars being armed on school properties. That has effectively meant that people cannot carry guns to churches or synagogues that meet at places with schools.

The measure (HB 1437) approved Tuesday would allow religious institutions to authorize people with concealed-weapons licenses to carry guns at such locations.

“Right now, if a church was located on the same property as, say, a preschool, and that preschool met from Monday through Friday, people at that church would not be allowed to carry concealed on Sunday and Wednesday night during those services, and this bill would change that,” bill sponsor Jayer Williamson, R-Pace, said.

Brevard County Sheriff Wayne Ivey supported the proposal, saying he considers it a “property rights bill” instead of a gun bill.

“Right now, we see religious institutions across the country being attacked by those with evil in their heart,” Ivey said. “And what we know with absolute certainty is that our citizens have to have the right to be the first line of defense in protecting them, their families and those around them in those places of worship.”

But Rep. Jennifer Webb, D-Gulfport, said she has talked with churches and synagogues in her Pinellas County district and they did not see a need for people to carry concealed firearms in their facilities.

Lawmakers have considered similar proposals in the past, but the measures have not been approved. Also, a Senate version of Williamson’s bill has not been filed for this year’s legislative session.

The issue of safety at religious institutions, however, has drawn heavy attention in recent years after mass shootings at churches and synagogues in places such as Texas and Pennsylvania.

The other gun-related bill (HB 183) approved Tuesday by the House panel would allow local elected officials to bring weapons to their public meetings if they have concealed weapons licenses. Under current law, people — including elected officials — are not allowed to bring guns to such meetings.

“Every day, we get threats. We have people stalking our staffs and our commissioners,” Okaloosa County Commissioner Graham Fountain said in supporting the bill, proposed by Rep. Mel Ponder, a Destin Republican who is running for the Okaloosa County Commission this year.

It remains unclear whether always-controversial gun legislation will pass during this year’s session.

The Senate has started moving forward with a gun-control bill (SB 7028) that includes proposals such as eliminating the gun-show “loophole” on background checks and creating a record-keeping system for private gun sales. House Speaker Jose Oliva, R-Miami Lakes, said last week the Senate measure “probably will not move very far here in the House, if at all.”