Florida bill to allow weapons in churches, schools finds support with some churchgoers, clergy
Members and clergy of several Lee County churches that worship at school properties are generally positive about proposed legislation that would allow them to be armed during Sunday services.
Current state law generally allows people to carry concealed weapons at religious institutions, but it bars being armed on school properties.
With supporters pointing to attacks on churches and synagogues, a House panel last week approved a measure that would allow people to carry concealed weapons at religious institutions that share properties with schools.
"Honestly, I always worry about it," said Audra Manzari of Cape Coral, and a member of Restoration Christian Church. The church, which just started in September, meets Sundays at Ida Baker High School in Cape Coral. "I mean we're in there. Who's going to protect us?"
Her husband, Tom, said he was also in favor of legislation that would allow concealed carry in the school during services.
"I'd feel better," he said.
The new church's pastor, Rob Kendall, said there is security, but was reluctant to describe how it was set up. He said only one set of the school's doors are open and provisions for protection of the non-denominational congregation of 30 to 50 members have been put in place.
"It's a real concern," he said. "I did an informal poll (about the measure). Absolutely, (the members) think that's a good idea."
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.
Pastor Paul Irminge, leader of Gulfside Church which meets weekly at Island Coast High School in Cape Coral, also favored the legislation.
"The church should be able to make a determination who can concealed carry," he said. "We would be very comfortable with that."
Irminger said his church, which started in October 2019, had dealt with an instance of intimidation at the school.
"We've already dealt with harassment," he said. "Someone who was exhibiting alarming behavior."
Irminger said the man who was attending services would not make eye contact or tell anyone his name. The church had a Cape Coral police unit sit outside during services and when the man came that Sunday and saw the patrol car he left and has not returned.
The pastor added that the church does have security protocols set up and has taken part in Cape Coral Police Department's active shooter training.
Church member John Armato, a member of law enforcement who carries a weapon off-duty, said the potential law was a way to ensure the safety of those attending church.
"Given the circumstances across the country," he said.
Kendall said if the measure ever becomes law he would communicate that to members.
"I'm just not sure how," he said. "You're foolish not to recognize the risk or danger. There's no wisdom to sticking your head in the sand."
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.
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.”
This story originally published to news-press.com, and was shared to other Florida newspapers in the new Gannett Media network.