Florida lawmakers look to clear way for guns at religious schools

The Florida House and Senate have started moving forward with measures that would allow people with concealed-weapons licenses to carry guns on the grounds of churches and other religious institutions that include schools.

But as with past failed efforts, a Senate proposal (SB 1048) approved Thursday by the Judiciary Committee would prohibit firearm possession during hours when schools or day-care centers are operating.

»RELATED: The latest in Florida political news

Also, two South Florida Republicans — who have teamed with Democrats to block other pro-gun measures in recent years — sought assurances from bill sponsor Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, that he won’t continue to advance the proposal if the school-hour requirement is altered. The requirement was added as an amendment to the bill Thursday.

Baxley, who along with other supporters say churchgoers need to be able to defend themselves from violence, indicated he will try to avoid changes in the bill.

“We’re looking at function, rather than what is the property, is it a school, is it a church,” Baxley said after the meeting. “In order to protect all these congregants that meet in these communities of faith and their property rights, I intend to try my very best to try to abide by that commitment that allowed some of these folks to vote with me today.”

A similar House bill (HB 1419) was backed 7-3 in a party-line vote Wednesday by the House Criminal Justice Subcommittee.

Florida law allows religious facilities to be open to people who have concealed-weapons licenses and are armed. However, state law prohibits people from carrying guns at schools.

Kate Kile, the Tallahassee leader of the gun-violence prevention group Moms Demand Action For Gun Sense in America, said the group will not object as long as the measure maintains that guns are restricted while students are on campus during school hours or for extracurricular events.

“How people hold their words, I don’t know,” Kile said.

Sen. Anitere Flores, R-Miami, and Sen. Rene Garcia, R-Hialeah, warned Baxley that the measure could lose votes if it fails to maintain the prohibition on guns during school hours. Flores and Garcia have helped block other pro-gun bills in the past.

“I would say agreeing to changes to what is in this bill now, I think would violate a certain level of trust that we have amongst each other as colleagues, as senators,” Flores said. “I know that is nothing you would ever do, and what we’re hoping … as we move forward, that it’s important for us to deal with this specific issue and other issues don’t cloud that. Because if we can’t get that commitment, there might be a different vote.”

Lawmakers backing the bill pointed to a deadly shooting in November at a church in Sutherland Springs, Texas.

On Nov. 5, 26 people were killed and 20 others were injured when a gunman started firing into a Baptist church from across the street, before making his way into the building. The gunman, who later died of a self-inflicted wound, was shot twice as he exited the church.

House Criminal Justice Chairman Ross Spano, a Dover Republican and co-sponsor of the House measure, called the proposal personal.

“I attend a church that has a school during the week, and our pastor has received death threats,” he said. “So we are faced with the unenviable decision of committing a third-degree felony for allowing our congregants to protect themselves. Not an enviable decision.”

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