New FL law allows guns in schools co-located with churches; critics opposed expansion of gun rights

By: - July 2, 2021 1:04 pm
gun training class

A training class on carrying concealed weapons. The FL Legislature has approved a bill that would not require training. (Photo by George Frey/Getty Images)

A new Florida law that expands rights to carry concealed firearms and erodes Florida’s prohibition of guns on school property is now in effect.

The Republican-backed measure passed the Legislature this spring as Senate Bill 259 and was signed into law by Gov. Ron DeSantis Tuesday.

Sen. Joe Gruters, a southwest Florida Republican and chairman of the Republican Party of Florida, sponsored the bill, saying his intent was to allow people with concealed weapons permits to carry their weapons during religious activities  regardless whether the activities are conducted on property co-located with a school.

“For the purposes of safety, security, personal protection, or any other lawful purpose, a person licensed under this section may carry a concealed weapon or firearm on property owned, rented, leased, borrowed, or lawfully used by a church, synagogue, or other religious institution,” the new law says.

In other words, a religious institution that operates a school on its property may now legally carry firearms in and around that school. Likewise, a school that leases or loans out any of its property for religious activities can no longer ban firearms on that same property.

Gruters argued throughout the spring legislative session that the new law protects the property rights of religious organizations that want to exercise their right to bear arms even on property they own or lease which is co-located with schools. A religious organization may decide for itself whether to permit concealed firearms in its midst.

Critics of SB 259 said in legislative testimony that it leaves some schools exposed to firearms on their campuses, with no way to determine whether a person carrying a concealed weapon is or is not affiliated with a sanctioned religious organization leasing some part of the property.

Gun-free school zones were mandated by state law in 2018 after the shooting massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland. The law prohibits firearms on school property, regardless whether the school is privately owned or whether the property was leased to another entity for another purpose.

Children participate in a March For Our Lives protest in 2018 following the school massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, FL. Credit: Scott Olson/Getty

Democrats in the Legislature who wanted to preserve gun-free school zones opposed SB 259 during the spring session. Joining them in opposition at the time were the Florida Coalition to Prevent Gun Violence (created in response to the 2016 Pulse nightclub shooting massacre), the Florida Council of Churches, and the Florida Conference of Catholic Bishops, all of which testified against the bill.

The critics, citing deadly mass shootings across the nation — including two in March, in Atlanta and in Boulder, Colo. — said Florida should be reining in the proliferation of firearms, not expanding their use into school zones.

Gruters asserted that gun-free school zones prevent people participating in church services and other religious activities on property co-located with a school from carrying their guns. He said they want their guns at hand to defend their congregations from attackers. He cited recent shootings in churches and synagogues, including the 2015 deadly attack on an African-American church in Charleston by a white supremacist.

One Florida organization that endorsed the bill, which became law, says it doesn’t go far enough to protect gun rights.

“While this bill is a small step in the right direction, Florida is being left behind on gun rights,” said Matt Collins, director of legislation for Florida Gun Rights, said in a press statement this week. “Sadly, Republicans in this state, including Governor Ron DeSantis, are not leading on the 2nd Amendment.”

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Laura Cassels
Laura Cassels

Laura Cassels is a reporter, former statehouse bureau chief, and former city editor. She is a classical pianist, a Florida State University graduate and proud alum of the Florida Flambeau, an independent college newspaper.