TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Gun rights would be expanded at churches and other places of worship and for local government officials in Florida who want to carry firearms at meetings under two bills approved by a House committee Tuesday.
Members of the House Criminal Justice Committee cited several shootings around the country as they supported the bills, including one last month in which security volunteer Jack Wilson fatally shot a man who opened fire in a Texas church, killing two.
“Every day that this is not the law in Florida is an insult to people of faith who attend church," said Republican Rep. Anthony Sabatini. “We are probably moments away from the next Jack Wilson story, the next opportunity for someone to stand up in a church and save a life, and the failure of this bill to pass would, I think, encourage such violent acts.”
While Florida doesn't prohibit guns in churches, synagogues, mosques and other places of worship, many religious organizes worship on properties that also contain schools, ranging from preschools to universities, and guns are banned in those places.
The measures were also passed as Florida's Democrat s call for more gun restrictions two years after a shooting at a Parkland high school left 17 dead. Republicans have largely ignored those calls, while the two bills approved Tuesday received bipartisan support.
“I understand that sometimes gun issues are hotly contested in our society, but on this measure here, members, there really should be no contesting this. This is something we all should be voting for, because the truth is that those people who attend churches are in harm’s way,” said Republican Rep. Byron Donalds.
Rabbi Zvi Konikov of Satellite Beach strongly urged committee members to support the bill.
“Synagogues and all houses of faith are in a state of crisis. Law enforcement cannot be expected on our sites 24/7. Rabbis and all leaders of faith cannot be left unprotected," Konikov said. “Law enforcement agencies have response times in minutes, but the violent criminals can take our lives in seconds.”
If a religious institution is leasing, renting or borrowing the site where it worships, the property owner could still impose a firearm ban, under the proposed bill.
Three of the five Democrats on the committee joined Republicans in supporting the bill.
The other bill would allow county and city commissioners and school board members to carry guns to meetings if they have a concealed weapons permit.
In sponsoring the bill, Republican Rep. Mel Ponder cited shootings at government meetings around the country, including at a 2010 school board meeting in Bay County, where a gunman opened fire before being shot by a security guard and then taking his own life.
Ponder is running for a seat on the Okaloosa County Commission. Current Okaloosa Commissioner Graham Fountain also spoke in favor of the bill.
“Every day we get threats. We have people stalking our staff, our commissioners . ... This protects us,” Fountain said. ”And for my good friend Mr. Ponder here, he’s fixing to sit next to me here in the near future as a county commissioner and he’s dang sure going to need that pistol."
The legislative staff analysis cited shootings at government meetings in New Hope, Minnesota; Kirkwood, Missouri; Ross Township, Pennsylvania; and Mount Pleasant, Iowa.
Rep. Spencer Roach was the only Republican to vote against the bill, saying it didn't go far enough, and anyone with a concealed weapons permit should be allowed to take their guns to government meetings.
“It sets a dangerous precedent when the exercise of your S econd A mendment right, or any right, is conditioned upon your employment status, and even more dangerous when it’s conditioned on your membership in the government,” Roach said. “We are giving a superior right to government officials here that our constituents don’t have.”
But Democratic Rep. Michael Grieco, a former Miami Beach city commissioner, said government officials should be able to protect themselves, and he found it strange that as a concealed weapons permit holder, he couldn't bring his gun to meetings.
“At least twice, if not three times, I have had death threats. I've had to have police vehicles placed outside my home,” he said, adding that commission meetings can get contentious. "There are plenty of places — city commission meetings, city council meetings — where you do feel unsafe and you are a target."
The measure was approved on an 11-3 vote, with two Democrats joining Roach in opposing it.