By Thomas Jett
Capital News Service
RICHMOND - After a committee endorsed the proposal on a party-line vote, the House of Delegates is considering legislation to allow people to bring guns and knives into a place of worship in Virginia.
Delegates are scheduled to vote this week on House Bill 1180, which would repeal the state's ban against carrying weapons into a house of worship while religious services are being held.
Del. Dave LaRock, R-Loudoun, said he is sponsoring this bill on behalf of concerned churchgoers.
"Recent shootings in churches have leaders across the country reevaluating their security plans in places of worship," LaRock said, referring to church attacks in Sutherland Springs, Texas and Charleston, South Carolina.
The existing law states, "If any person carry any gun, pistol, Bowie knife, dagger or other dangerous weapon, 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."
At a meeting of the House Militia, Police and Public Safety Committee last week, LaRock said the law is ambiguous.
"The statute restricts those in charge of places of worship from exercising full control over their own private property," LaRock said. "By repealing this law, we will remove a barrier to churches forming plans to protect and defend their establishments against malicious attacks."
Philip Van Cleave of the Virginia Citizens Defense League testified in support of the bill. He said the current law "is forcing pacifism, if you will, on churches. It's taking away their ability to do certain ceremonial things."
Representatives of faith communities disagreed. Bryan Walsh spoke on behalf of the Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy.
"Faith leaders we have spoken with, and members of our community, don't feel that this bill makes places of worship any safer," Walsh said. "We want our places of worship to be places of peace, not violence."
Amanda Silcox, who also works at the center, echoed Walsh's testimony, stating, "We believe places of worship should be safe havens for people, not places of violence."
LaRock said HB 1180 will not invite violence in houses of worship. "Repealing this bill will do nothing more than to allow the formation of sensible security plans for places of worship and the best way to avoid disaster is to plan and prepare," he said.
Del. Marcus Simon, D-Fairfax, said he saw no need for LaRock's legislation.
"If a law is working just fine, and there aren't really any problems with the law, we should just leave it alone," Simon said.
Lori Haas, a lobbyist for the Educational Fund to Stop Gun Violence, requested more time for public reaction to the bill, which was filed on Jan. 10.
"There are many, many, many members of faith communities across the commonwealth who might have an opinion about this bill, might want to express their support or opposition to the bill," Haas said.
Despite her plea, the Militia, Police and Public Safety Committee voted 12-9 in favor of HB 1180, sending the bill to the full House. The Republicans on the panel voted unanimously for the measure; the Democrats voted against it.