Jewish groups in Virginia are sounding the alarm about legislation moving through the General Assembly that would repeal a state ban on bringing guns into houses of worship.
In the Virginia Senate, SB372 passed on a party-line vote last week, 21-18. A similar bill in the House of Delegates, where Republicans hold a 51-49 advantage, is awaiting a committee vote. But Ralph Northam, the newly minted Democratic governor, will veto the bill if it reaches his desk, according to his assistant communications director Charlotte Gomer.
Nonetheless, Jewish groups around the state are rallying constituents to oppose the legislation. The Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington as well as Jewish federations in Richmond and Norfolk, are calling on the state to preserve the prohibition. The Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy also opposes the proposed legislation.
“It would require every single synagogue to preemptively come up with the determination and proactively warn trespassers and those coming on to the campus that they don’t permit weapons,” said Darcy Hirsh, director of Northern Virginia government relations at the JCRC. “This isn’t about gun control. This is about whether or not houses of worship are going to be kept safe.”
As state law stands, guns are prohibited in places of worship during religious services, though with exceptions. The law bans bringing “any gun, pistol, bowie knife, dagger or other dangerous weapon, without good and sufficient reason, to a place of worship.”
Under the current interpretation of the law, “good and sufficient reason” includes self-defense, and so congregants are legally allowed to bring firearms to houses of worship with a concealed carry permit.
But the bills under consideration could place the onus on churches, mosques and synagogues to explicitly prohibit weapons. “They’d have to cover their buildings with signs,” Hirsh said. “You’re forcing each house of worship to come up with a policy on gun possession.”
In an email, Gomer said that Northam — who made gun violence a central issue of his campaign — wanted fewer guns in public places.
“He is eager to work with the General Assembly to reduce gun violence, but he does not believe that adding more guns to more locations is the right approach,” Gomer said.
But Edward Friedman sees it differently. A member at Chabad of Reston-Herndon, he said he carries a concealed weapon at services with the permission of Rabbi Leibel Fajnland, who has asked trained members to do so if they wish.
Friedman said Chabad contacted Fairfax County police about additional security for events, but that all the police agreed to do was drive by occasionally.
“It’s something that’s incredibly important to me, and I think it should be to every single practicing Jew who goes to synagogue,” said Friedman, who is the editor-in-chief of the National Rifle Association’s magazine, Shooting Illustrated. “Because look around, we’re seeing white supremacist groups come up with specific anti-Semitic ideologies, and the Islamic terror threat is still around and very serious. And synagogues are incredibly soft targets.”
Friedman said that high-quality security is often too expensive for synagogues, and that the best way to deter a would-be attacker is to have congregants who are trained and armed ready to respond. There’s even scriptural justification for having an armed congregation, according to Friedman: God, after all, gave people the tools to make guns.
Some, however, fear that the bills could lead to congregants taking synagogue security into their own hands. Michael Shochet was a police officer in Baltimore and currently works as a chaplain for the Fairfax County Police Department. He’s also the cantor at Temple Rodef Shalom in Falls Church. He said that right now, synagogues are in control of their security, and he doesn’t want that to change.
“I think that our congregatoin has a responsibility to create the safest possible environment for our congregants, it’s up to us to do that,” Shochet said. “But if we allow congregants to bring in guns it could be very scary or distressing to others.”
He said that the Reform synagogue always has security for events. Oftentimes that takes the form of police officers, who are armed.
Rather than arming congregants to stop a threat, Shochet said synagogues should teach members in how to react to a dangerous situation but rely on trained professionals when it comes to using guns to neutralize it.
“As a police officer and someone who’s trained in firearms, I know that a solution of shooting a shooter is not an easy task,” Shochet said. “To think that having someone with a gun sitting next to you in the pew is going to protect your safety can be a misnomer.”
The House bill is the work of Del. Dave LaRock (R-District 33), who represents part of Loudoun County. He said that he wants to eliminate the ambiguity of the current statute.
LaRock pointed out that at a recent interfaith gathering at St. Paul’s Church in Richmond, Northam decried gun violence while flanked by armed security. Such security is permitted under current law.
“The governor himself sees the need, for his own safety and well-being, to have armed guards,” LaRock said. “The use of firearms in church is OK for the governor.”
But Hirsh said the JCRC had been in contact with a number of synagogues in Northern Virginia and that their message was simple: if it isn’t broke, don’t fix it.
“Houses of worship should be worried about creating peaceful places for their congregants to come worship and pray,” Hirsh said, “rather than coming up with policies about gun possession.”