Del. Kathy Szeliga has introduced House Bill 781, or the Parishioner Protection Act of 2019, allowing parishioners to carry firearms in houses of worship to help protect their congregations from a mass shooting.
Szeliga, who represents eastern Baltimore County and western Harford County, sponsored the same bill during the 2018 Maryland General Assembly session, but it did not make it past a House Judiciary Committee hearing. She said, as the session neared its end last April, that she planned to reintroduce the bill in the next session and that it can take a couple of years before a bill is passed.
This year’s version of the bill was introduced Friday, and a committee hearing is scheduled for Feb. 25, according to the General Assembly website.
“It’s an opportunity to deliver protection for the people of that religious organization,” Szeliga said in a recent interview.
Szeliga, a Republican, is the lead sponsor, and 24 of her colleagues — all Republicans — have signed on as co-sponsors, according to the legislative website. They include four of her colleagues in the eight-member Harford County House delegation — Dels. Lauren Arikan, Andrew Cassilly, Susan McComas and Teresa Reilly.
The other three delegation members, Republican Del. Rick Impallaria and Democratic Dels. Steve Johnson and Mary Ann Lisanti, were not listed as co-signers as of Tuesday.
A companion bill in the Maryland Senate was not listed as of Tuesday, either.
The late Harford County Sen. Wayne Norman supported a Senate version of the bill last year, but the bill was ultimately withdrawn before the end of the session. Norman died suddenly in early March at age 62.
Last year’s bill had the support of Harford Sheriff Jeffrey Gahler and members of the local clergy. The sheriff and three church pastors were on hand, along with Norman and Szeliga, during a press conference in December 2017.
“Can you think of anything more egregious than being in the house of the Lord and someone coming in with ill intent?” Gahler said at the time, noting he requested area legislators pursue solutions in Annapolis in the wake of deadly mass shootings in churches in Texas in 2017 and in Charleston, S.C. in 2015.
Gahler reiterated his support for this year’s legislation.
“This bill would allow church leaders the opportunity to decide the best way to protect members of their congregation against the unthinkable, an active shooter,” he said in a statement Monday evening. “Nationally, and at here at home, we have seen how lives can be taken in a matter of seconds.”
Harford County suffered two deadly workplace shootings, first at Advanced Granite Solutions in Edgwood in October of 2017 and then at a Rite Aid distribution center in Perryman last September.
The sheriff noted that “an armed, responsible, law abiding citizen can save lives.”
“More importantly, the ability of our places of worship to make decisions regarding their safety plans, can present a real deterrent,” Gahler continued. “When the criminal is not free to think the gatherings of our families and friends in faith are left vulnerable and undefended, perhaps attacks can be deterred.”
House Bill 781 states that a parishioner who has obtained the written consent of the governing body of “a bona fide church or religious organization” can carry a handgun — without a permit — on the property during religious services or gatherings, plus they can transport the handgun to and from the house of worship.
“It’s sensible, it’s just enabling [legislation],” Szeliga said. “All we have to do is look at the horrible shooting in that church in Texas.”
Twenty-six people died in the November 2017 shooting at First Baptist Church in the small town of Sutherland Springs, about 35 miles from San Antonio.
Szeliga expressed concern about congregations in rural areas of Harford County, where first responders could be 15 or 20 minutes away.
She said the parishioner protection program, authorized in the legislation, would be a pilot program for Harford County and would be overseen by the Sheriff’s Office.
“I am hopeful the General Assembly moves to pass the statewide bill, but as a minimum, permits this pilot program to go forward in Harford County,” Gahler said in his statement.
Szeliga stressed that participation is voluntary, and those who take part would be qualified to legally own a firearm.
She said the legislation would allow people such as retired police or military members to serve as a security patrol for their churches.
“We’re being proactive; we don’t want anything like this to happen in Harford County,” Szeliga said. “It’s happened in Texas, it’s happened in South Carolina, and we don’t want it to happen here.”
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Mass shootings have not only happened in churches; Jewish synagogues, Sikh temples and Muslim mosques, both in the U.S. and Canada, have been targets in recent years, as well. In October, a gunman opened fire in a Pittsburgh synagogue killing 11 people.
Alexandre Bissonnette, 29, was sentenced to life in prison last Friday — the same day Szeliga’s bill was introduced — for carrying out a mass shooting in a mosque in Quebec City, Canada, in 2017. Six worshipers were killed and five more injured in the shooting at the Islamic Cultural Centre of Quebec City; Bissonnette will be eligible for parole in 40 years.
“Any and all places of worship should be adequately protected, and any help that is available should be at their disposal,” Dr. Rehan Khan, president of the congregation at Masjid Al Falaah in Abingdon, said Tuesday.
Khan expressed support for the parishioner protection legislation as long as the program is done in coordination with the mosque administration and law enforcement.
“As long as it meets the criteria of the local laws, and the people who are doing it should be trained,” he said, adding that there should be “a thorough background check” for people authorized to carry firearms.
Khan noted Masjid Al Falaah has formed a coalition with local Christian and Jewish congregations — The Harford County Alliance of Abrahamic Faiths includes members of the masjid plus Temple Adas Shalom and St. James A.M.E. Church, both in Havre de Grace.
“We work on projects with each other to promote mutual understanding, and the faith community should be role models for the rest of the country,” he said.