Harford sheriff backs proposed legislation to allow guns in churches

People attending services in a house of worship in Maryland will have the option to carry a firearm for self defense, should bills sponsored by two Harford County legislators pass in Annapolis next year.

The legislation, which was announced Tuesday during a press conference at the Harford County Sheriff’s Office Southern Precinct in Edgewood, is called the Parishioner Protection Act of 2018.

“Can you think of anything more egregious than being in the house of the Lord and someone coming in with ill intent?” asked Sheriff Jeffrey Gahler, who said he asked local legislators to pursue a legislative fix in Annapolis.

He said his agency has fielded inquiries from people in the local faith community about how to protect themselves if a shooting happens in their house of worship.

Gahler cited the massacre of 26 parishioners in a Texas church in early November, as well as the killing of parishioners and clergy in a church in Charleston, S.C., in 2015 and other incidents in recent years, including a pipe bomb attack in New York City Monday morning, the death of three employees in a mass shooting at Advanced Granite Solutions in Edgewood in October and the murder of two Sheriff’s Office deputies in Abingdon in 2016.

“We’ve seen the attacks far too frequently in our country, and the leaders standing behind me are here to push for change in Maryland, change that will allow our houses of worship to be protected,” Erik Robey, director of legislative and community affairs for the Sheriff’s Office, said.

Under the current state law, people who have concealed carry permits can bring a gun to church, he said.

"There’s nothing in state law that prohibits them from carrying on church property,” Robey said.

The proposed bill amends the state firearms law to allow people who have written authorization from a house of worship and a handgun qualification license — which allows people to legally acquire a handgun — to bring a handgun to church. A concealed carry permit would not be required under the proposed bill, according to Robey.

According to Maryland State Police’s web page, a state qualification license is required to "purchase, rent, or receive a handgun," in Maryland as of Oct. 1, 2013.

Attending the news conference Monday were Gahler, the bill’s sponsors, Del. Kathy Szeliga and Sen. Wayne Norman, both Republicans, and three local pastors — the Rev. Tommy Allen, of St. Mary’s Episcopal Church in Abingdon, the Rev. Don Dove, of Living Hope Presbyterian Church in Havre de Grace and the Rev. Jeff Berg, of Forest Ridge Baptist Church in Forest Hill.

Gahler said there are about 300 churches in Harford County and about 20 Sheriff’s Office deputies on duty at any time.

“The police cannot be everywhere, and this proposed legislation grew out of the faith-based community reaching out to us,” he said.

Officials stressed the bill is not a mandate for people to carry firearms on church property. The legislation, as proposed, would allow parishioners who have the written permission of church officials and can legally own a firearm in Maryland to wear and carry a handgun on church property.

“This is an opportunity for those that want to participate to be able to do that,” Szeliga said.

Gahler said a person would not need a concealed-carry permit to have a gun on their person while in church. He said that person could “absolutely not” carry the gun while at a church event, such as lunch at a restaurant off the premises.

He said church officials concerned about safety have been allowing parishioners who have a handgun license, or off-duty police officers, to carry their firearms at church. Several have requested that the Sheriff’s Office provide deputies, working on overtime, for security.

Gahler said more than 500 people have signed up for an active-shooter training session on Thursday, hosted by the Sheriff’s Office, at Mountain Christian Church in Joppa.

He said a number of business owners have signed up, but “a large part of that is also the faith-based community who want to know how to protect their congregations.”

Norman and Szeliga will sponsor versions of the act in the Maryland Senate and House of Delegates, respectively, when the 2018 legislative session begins next month.

“We are going to make sure it gets fairly vetted, and I’ve been crossing my fingers for legislation such as this, and I’m very glad the sheriff came up with this idea,” Norman said.

Szeliga said people who enter a church “come in with their back to the door and are not aware of what’s going on behind them, and it leaves them vulnerable.”

Gahler said his agency would not be involved in selecting which parishioners can carry weapons — that is the responsibility of church leaders — and the legislation does not require church officials to coordinate with law enforcement on who in their congregation is carrying.

He said people must undergo firearms training to secure a state handgun qualification license when buying a weapon.

“People who want to carry certainly need to be aware — as every police officer in our country has to be — they’re responsible for their rounds, they’re responsible for the decisions they make, they’re responsible to be responsible gun owners, and they’re held accountable for the decisions they make,” Gahler said.

Allen, the pastor of St. Mary’s Episcopal, said he would ensure anyone who carries a weapon in his church has an “extra layer of training,” including coordination with the Sheriff’s Office.

“The best way to check a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun, who is adequately trained to assess and address a potentially violent situation,” Allen said after the press conference.

He lamented current events that have forced church leaders to consider such a measure.

“This is not where I'd want to be, but this is where we are,” Allen said.

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