By Dave LaRock
Jan 22, 2018
Investigators work at the scene of a deadly shooting at the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, Nov. 5, 2017. FILE, THE SAN ANTONIO EXPRESS-NEWS VIA The ASSOCIATED PRESS
The recent tragic shooting of more than two dozen people at First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs, Texas, has caused church leaders across the country to re-evaluate their security plans. In Virginia, a law dating back 140 years casts uncertainty on whether or not weapons are allowed in a place of worship during services.
Trespass laws allows private property owners the final say on who is and who is not allowed to bring a weapon onto their private property, with one exception: places of worship, during a service. A person violating trespass law can be charged with a Class 1 misdemeanor.
In addition to trespass law, which is clear and precise, Virginia has a general prohibition which is vague and subjective; it states, “If any person carries any gun, pistol, bowie knife, dagger or other dangerous weapons, without good and sufficient reason, to a place of worship while a meeting for religious purposes is being held at such place he shall be guilty of a Class 4 misdemeanor.” Notice the trespass law has a more severe penalty.
This general prohibition leaves wide open the question of whether having weapons as part of a church’s emergency plan would qualify as “a good and sufficient reason.” In 2011, then-Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli issued a formal opinion that said self-defense is considered “good and sufficient reason” for the lawful carry of handguns into a church during a service. That opinion does not have the force of law and could be reversed by a future AG or disregarded by a court of law.
Searching for the roots of the weapons-in-church prohibition led me to the Division of Legislative Services (DLS). According to DLS, the original version of the section was added in 1878 (Acts chap. 311) and was placed with other laws that dealt with violating the Sabbath — laws also called “blue laws.”
Most blue laws have been repealed. Sunday hunting bans, which were based partly on the belief that wild creatures needed a day of rest, and bans on retail activity, including the sale of alcohol on Sunday, are all gone from Virginia’s laws — but the ban on weapons in a place of worship remains on the books.
There are three reasons this general prohibition should go, leaving trespass laws to govern churches as with all other private property.
First, the general prohibition statute restricts those responsible for places of worship from exercising full control over their own private property. It separates responsibility from decision-making. A place of worship, like a business, has a legal obligation to maintain its property in a reasonably safe condition. Prohibiting weapons severely limits a place of worship’s ability to form an effective plan to deal with an active shooter situation.
Second, the general prohibition statute, as written, puts the government in a position of requiring a person entering private property to forfeit the right to self-defense in order to exercise his right to free exercise of religion. While it is appropriate for the property owner to make rules like this, the government has no compelling interest to intervene in this manner.
The third and most compelling reason is that by repealing this general prohibition, we will remove a barrier to churches forming plans to defend and protect their establishments by quickly stopping a malicious attack. It is quite apparent that criminals and terrorists view churches, schools, government buildings, and other “gun-free zones” as easy targets to do their dirty deeds. Police cannot be everywhere at once to stop an attack.
Following the recent shooting at First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, speaking to Fox News hours after more than two dozen people were killed in that shooting, suggested that heightened security and “arming some of the parishioners or the congregation” could help prevent such tragedies. Church leaders need the freedom to make realistic security plans that could include weapons.
With blue laws gone, people exercise their right to shop, hunt, and purchase alcohol on Sundays. Leaving a remnant law from a bygone era in place when it could put churchgoers in harm’s way is, in a word, wrong. This Virginia law prohibiting weapons in a place of worship should join its blue law counterparts in the dust heap of history where it belongs.
Delegate Dave LaRock represents the 33rd House District (parts of Loudoun, Clarke, and Frederick counties) in the Virginia General Assembly. He may be contacted at DelDLaRock@house.virginia.gov and (804) 698-1033.