In the wake of multiple tragic shootings, the debate continues whether religious organizations should permit members to carry firearms when worshiping. In late January 2019, the Florida House of Representatives passed a bill that would pave the way for religious organizations to permit concealed weapons in places of worship. House Bill 403 proposes amending Florida statutes concerning carrying concealed weapons to provide:
“Notwithstanding any other law, for the purposes of safety, security, personal protection, or other lawful purposes, a church, a synagogue, or any other religious institution may authorize a person licensed under this section to carry a firearm on property owned, rented, leased, borrowed, or lawfully used by the church, synagogue, or religious institution.”
The Bill evidences a continued concern of how best to protect members of religious organizations from random acts of violence. However, the debate is not simply one of whether it is lawful to arm members. Religious tenants, concerns over creating unnecessary civil liabilities for religious organizations, and the most basic question of whether having armed members attend worship makes the general membership safer, are all factored into the continued discussion whether to arm, or not arm, members.
From the single perspective of what are the civil ramifications of permitting members to carry firearms during worship, the risk to religious organizations of creating civil liabilities is real. If a religious organization permitted members to carry concealed weapons, in the event of an active shooter incident, members injured or killed could bring an action against the religious organization challenging how the member who was carrying a firearm reacted to the active shooter incident.
How can this be? The religious organization was trying to protect members by allowing weapons during worship. The answer lies in the argument that once the religious organization decided to permit weapons during worship, the religious organization assumed a duty of care to the membership to ensure those members carrying a firearm could properly and effectively defend and protect the membership. In other words, the religious organization created a duty of care that did not previously exist: the duty to ensure members carrying firearms into a place of worship will properly respond in an active shooter scenario.
This is just one example of how, from a civil liability perspective, there can be unintended consequences for a religious organization permitting members to carry firearms. Therefore, religious organizations considering permitting firearms during worship should consult legal counsel to determine how best to create policies and procedures so as to minimize potential civil liabilities.