RICHMOND, Virginia: Virginians could legally bring their guns to church under a bill that cleared the state Senate this week and sparked an emotional debate over whether packing heat in a house of worship constitutes a snub to the Almighty.
“Psalm 46 said, ‘God is our refuge and strength,’” Senator Lionell Spruill Sr, Democrat, said as he argued against the measure Thursday. “Now we are saying with this bill, we no longer trust in God.”
The bill repeals a law thought to date to Colonial times which makes it a misdemeanour to “carry any gun, pistol, bowie knife, dagger or other dangerous weapon without good and sufficient reason, to a place of worship” during religious services.
While Virginia has a strong gun culture and some of the nation’s most lax firearms laws, churches have been gun-free zones — although the “good and sufficient reason” language offers a loophole.
In 2011, then-Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, issued an opinion that the ban would not apply to someone with a concealed-carry permit. Some Republicans contend that makes the existing law unenforceable. They also said plenty of Virginians are already coming to Jesus armed.
Senator Richard Black, Republican, wants to repeal the law. He made note of mass shootings at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin in 2012 and at an African Methodist church in South Carolina in 2015 as he pitched his bill on the Senate floor.
“It really sent shockwaves through all churches,” he said of the massacres. “These folks are uniquely vulnerable because they’re lined up in a church pew; exiting the pew is very difficult. It makes them the ultimate target. ... Either you cower in place or you fight back.”
The Senate passed the measure 21 to 19, with every Republican in favour and every Democrat opposed. It now heads to the House, where similar measures died in committee last year.
A spokeswoman for Governor Ralph Northam did not immediately respond to a request for comment, but last year his then-spokesman signalled that the governor would veto the measure if it got to his desk.
Before the vote, the Senate engaged in an extended debate. Republicans argued that individual churches should decide if they want guns in their pews, while Democrats warned that worshippers could wind up victimized with their own guns. Then came a spin-off debate over Spruill’s claim that worshipping while armed belies a lack of faith.
“We ... foolishly took prayer out of schools ... and now we want to take God out of church,” Spruill said. “If there’s anywhere you can trust God, it should be the church. Let’s depend on God on this one. Let’s not take God out of church.”
Senator Chap Petersen, Democrat, struck a similar note: “When I walk into a house of worship, it humbles me. You need to act and be your best, and that means putting down your firearm.”