Law could bring guns into synagogues

Gov. Ralph Northam says he’ll veto the gun bill. File photo.

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.”

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  1. I commend your desire to portray various perspectives on this. That has been sorely lacking in much of the coverage. I still must disagree with your final comment. The current system *IS* broken.

    A law that is ambiguous, as the current one is, leaves itself ripe for different interpretations in different jurisdictions. While you’re correct that the current interpretation of “good and sufficient reason” includes self-defense, it is just that…an interpretation. It is subject to change, both at the state level and from one jurisdiction to another or even from one officer to another. Having an ambiguous law is dangerous. Under the current law, even if a synagogue permits law-abiding citizens to carry on their property, an officer of the court who chooses to interpret the law differently could charge that individual.

    Let me repeat that. A law-abiding citizen who carries a firearm for protection onto the property of a synagogue with the explicit permission of the leadership of that synagogue, can still be criminally charged by an officer of the court who chooses to interpret the current ambiguous law differently. Laws should not be ambiguous. If it is permitted, it should be permitted equally across the Commonwealth. Everyone should be equal under the law.

    On the other hand, if we are to somehow ignore that problem and think as if “good and sufficient reason” does include self-defense universally, then firearms are already permitted in all synagogues unless the leadership chooses to prohibit it.

    And that’s the key. Synagogues are private property. The law in Virginia is very clear. Any private property owner can readily restrict firearms on their property. That has always been the case, and this bill does not change that.

    All this bill does is seek to remove ambiguous language to ensure that everyone is treated equally under the law, and that a synagogue that does support members carrying for protection can do so without worry that a broken law can be subjectively interpreted in such a way as to usurp their authority over their own private property.

    Lastly, it is very nice of the cantor of a synagogue that can afford to hire off-duty officers for every event to tell other synagogues that cannot how to run their security. Furthermore, I would point out that Cantor Shochet, as a retired law enforcement officer, is covered by a federal law (LEOSA) that overrides certain state laws regarding where he can carry a concealed weapon. Friedman’s experience with Chabad is quite typical for synagogues in this area who don’t have the budgets that Rodef Shalom does. Should they be left defenseless. Recall the situation this past August when Congregation Beth Israel was confronted by neo-Nazis across the street, but was told that police had no resources to send, and that they were on their own.

    If a synagogue wishes to hire off-duty law enforcement full-time for events, and they believe this is good for them, then that’s great. Nothing in this bill affects them. But for those synagogues that are not so fortunate, this bill removes ambiguity in a law, and leaves them in full control to decide what works best for them.

    Do all of your readers who so fear armed members of their own congregations also fear armed Jews in public spaces when they travel to Israel?

    Is “never again” something that we simply recite by wrote, or does it actually mean something?

    The current system *IS* broken. This bill fixes it.


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