Harford County Sheriff Jeffrey Gahler has asked state lawmakers to let handgun owners bring their weapons to worship, saying he wants congregations to be able to defend themselves against a mass shooting like the one that happened last month in Texas.
Gahler backs a proposal that would let parishioners who have the written permission of church officials wear and carry a handgun on church property. The parishioner would need a state handgun license, but not a concealed-carry permit.
He was joined at a news conference this week in Edgewood by the two lawmakers who plan to introduce the legislation— Republican House Minority Whip Kathy Szeliga and state Sen. Wayne Norman — and three local pastors who support the idea. The sheriff, also a Republican, said he asked lawmakers to pursue the issue.
They called the measure the Parishioner Protection Act of 2018.
The proposal is counter to political winds in Annapolis, where the presiding officers of the Democrat-dominated General Assembly have proposed tightening — not loosening — Maryland’s gun laws.
“We don’t need guns in churches,” Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller said in a statement to The Baltimore Sun.
Miller and House Speaker Michael E. Busch, both Democrats, have jointly announced support for expanding the state’s ban on assault-style weapons and revamping the process for appealing denial of concealed-carry permit requests.
Miller and Busch want to replace the Handgun Permit Review Board, which is composed of five political appointees who can overturn decisions of the Maryland State Police, with an administrative judge — taking gun permit requests out of the hands of civilians.
“Maryland has one of the strongest gun control laws in the country — and we are not going to take a step backward now,” Busch said in a statement.
Given that environment, “I don’t see it happening,” Del. Kathleen Dumais said of the new proposal on guns in houses of worship.
“We will certainly hear the bill,” said Dumais, a Montgomery County Democrat who is vice chair of the House Judiciary Committee. “I am just not convinced that more people carrying guns is the solution.”
Under current law, those who want a concealed-carry permit must undergo training and apply to the state police. The applicant must show “a good and substantial reason” for needing the permit, and the police investigate to determine whether the applicant has “exhibited a propensity for violence or instability.”
“Although pastors are wonderful people — or imams or rabbis or reverends — I don’t think they have the necessary expertise to pick a person who should be able to wear, carry or transport a handgun,” said Del. Curt Anderson, a Baltimore Democrat who sits on the House Judiciary Committee.
Gahler said the legislation “grew out of the faith-based community reaching out to us.”
The sheriff’s office is also hosting an active-shooter training session at Mountain Christian Church in Joppa, and more than 500 people have signed up.
The Rev. Tommy Allen of St. Mary’s Episcopal Church in Abingdon attended the news conference and said he would make sure that 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.
Mark Pennak, president of the gun-rights group Maryland Shall Issue, called the legislation “a great idea.”
Pennak said three people have approached him about whether the state would grant them a concealed-carry permit if their pastors asked the parishioners to protect the congregation. Pennak said he wasn’t sure state police would view a pastor’s request as a “good and substantial reason” to grant a concealed-carry permit, but that he encouraged them to apply under existing state law.
“It's not an easy process to go through, and all that means is that the churches are vulnerable right now,” Pennak said.
Jen Pauliukonis, the president of Marylanders to Prevent Gun Violence, said the bill would allow people to bypass the training and background checks currently required to obtain a permit for a concealed handgun.
“What we need are stronger laws and better implementation of our laws,” she said. “We do not need to arm more citizens.”
Howard Libit, executive director of the Baltimore Jewish Council, said security has been a high priority for local synagogues and Jewish schools. In recent years, many have made substantial investments in safety measures such as cameras and secure entryways. Some also employ professional security personnel, he said.
“I don’t think that bringing additional guns into synagogues and places of worship is the answer for greater security,” Libit said.
Bishop Eugene Taylor Sutton, who leads the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland, said there are differing views on the issue within the Episcopal Church, but he opposes the idea.
“When we worship, our altars are dedicated to the Prince of Peace – not to the god of violence and war,” Sutton said. “We will not desecrate them by arming ourselves with weapons to kill people in houses of worship.”
Baltimore Sun Media Group reporter David Anderson contributedto this article.