Mixing religion with revolvers

The push to arm worshipers in Maryland

ANNAPOLIS, Md. - The deaths of 26 people at a church in Sutherland Springs, Texas in November raised the prospect of letting places of worship here in Maryland better arm themselves against an active shooter.
    
It pales in comparison to the deadliest church shooting in U.S. history, but an armed robbery of an entire congregation at the Mount Zion Church in Bel Air more than a decade ago exposed it as an easy target.

"I'm looking at this man and all the sudden I realize this is real," recounted Reverend Craig McLaughlin at the time, "He told everyone to move to the front of the church, picked the purses and wallets up and left."
    
The mass shootings that followed at the Emanual AME Church in South Carolina and at the Baptist church in Texas have convinced many that locking their doors is simply not enough.

"Those parishioners there were not well-prepared to handle situations such as that and so since then, I've reached out to the county sheriff's office to see if I can secure some aid on how to best prepare our church," said Pastor Jeff Berg of the Forest Ridge Baptist Church in Forest Hill.
    
With more than 300 places of worship and less than two dozen deputies on duty at any given time, Harford County Sheriff Jeffrey Gahler could offer no guarantee that his department could protect them.

"I don't care how many police officers you have in your police department, you're not going to be in a position to do that," said Gahler.
    
The sheriff sought help from Harford County's lawmakers in Annapolis---a proposed bill that would allow pastors to designate members of their congregations to transport and carry concealed weapons.

"I think it has an uphill battle to pass, but I think a lot of the feedback has been very good and, in fact, given the... just the ability---it's an enabling piece of legislation that just gives the ability for the church congregations to make these decisions as business owners have in our state," added the sheriff.
    
While the idea of putting guns in the pews may seem drastic to critics, the bill's primary sponsor, Delegate Kathy Szeliga, says it's already happening for those who count police officers among their parishioners.

"Current law enforcement---they're able to carry their firearm anywhere,” said Szeliga, “In my particular church, we have a couple of men in law enforcement that are part of our security team, but not every church, especially our smaller ones, have that ability."

And many cannot afford to hire private security guards.
    
It's argued allowing lawful, trained, law-abiding members to conceal and carry guns, with a pastor's written permission, may be the only alternative to legally fight fire with fire.

"This is a very popular bill and idea amongst our rural counties,” said Szeliga, “So I have a lot of rural legislators, because we don't have law enforcement within a couple of minutes.  Many of our counties, it could be 15 or 20 minutes before someone could physically reach one of our places of worship."

Time, which could mean everything once a gunman opens fire like at a business in Edgewood back in October.

"That individual within a matter of a few minutes, our response time to Advanced Granite Solutions was three or four minutes, he did the harm he intended to do and had fled the area," said Gahler.
    
It is a fact not lost upon Pastor Berg, who must sacrifice his open door policy by locking entrances once worship services begin and now considers arming select members of his congregation against those with evil intent.

"The Bible says... one of the commandments says, 'Thou shalt not murder.  Thou shall not kill',” said the reverend, “and I think this is a way to be engage in preventing potential murder to take place."
    
Proponents say the bill is scheduled to come up in a hearing of the House Judiciary next week, and they're prepared to offer an amendment to limit this to a pilot program in Harford County, if lawmakers appear hesitant to allow it in churches statewide.


 

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