Florida Legislature Set to Debate Gun Laws Following Recent Tragedies

Deputy Majority Leader Sen. Kelli Stargel (Left) and Judiciary Committee chairman Sen. Greg Steube (Right.) (Official Florida Senate photos.)

On November 5, Devin Patrick Kelley entered the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, causing 26 fatalities before exchanging gunfire with Stephen Willeford, a nearby resident and a former NRA instructor. The suspect was hit by Willeford and following a vehicle chase with the resident, Kelley took his own life.

The incident renewed the political conversation over guns in Florida as individuals with diverse opinions on gun control were all affected by this tragedy.

A month after the tragedy, the Florida Senate Judiciary Committee reviewed the state’s current gun laws ahead of January’s legislative commencement.

With few exceptions, citizens in Florida are legally permitted to carry concealed firearms according to Florida statutes; however, schools, government buildings, airports, law enforcement agencies, professional sporting events, and facilities licensed to serve alcohol are excluded from the protection of a concealed weapons permit.  

Churches are also not protected under the statute but individuals who obtain a permit may legally bring a concealed firearm into a place of worship.

Even with a concealed weapons permit, a person carrying a gun on a school campus could receive a felony charge. In the aftermath of the Sutherland Springs shooting, government officials have begun to reevaluate gun laws in hopes of preventing future incidents.

Sen. Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland, sponsored Senate Bill 274 with the intent to restore private property rights and security and defense rights to churches. Under this jurisdiction, churches may determine whether to allow firearms or to ban them from the premises.

However, the bill has received criticism from those who advocate that this would in turn permit guns in the classrooms due to its broad language.

The bill could serve as a workaround for current gun restrictions on private school property if a religious institution is located on the property and permits guns.

Stargel contends that this is not intended to allow for guns in classrooms, but instead is meant to restore property rights to churches. This restoration, however, would give churches the power to determine whether to allow firearms on the property. Schools would similarly be able to set their own policies.

Another sanctioned law being re-evaluated is one that criminalizes the act of unintentionally displaying a weapon as a second-degree misdemeanor.

A flasher protection bill proposed by Sen. Greg Steube, R-Sarasota, was voted down as “unfavorable” by the Senate Judiciary Committee which is chaired by Steube.

The bill, SB 148, takes aim at the duration in which a concealed-carry permit holder displays a firearm in public, a safeguard from prosecution for those inadvertently revealing a weapon. Instead of receiving up to 60 days in jail for the second-degree misdemeanor, violators will now receive a $25 fine.

Correction: A previous version of this article indicated Stephen Willeford killed Devin Patrick Kelley.

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