By: Michael Campbell | Twitter: @itsthesoup
Posted: Feb. 1, 2018 | 4:10 p.m.
DINWIDDIE – It has been nearly three months since a gunman walked into a Baptist church in the small community of Sutherland Springs, Texas and opened fire, killing 26 parishioners, including the daughter of the church’s pastor. Before that, the nation and the world were left stunned and horrified by another act of senseless violence at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina as nine people attending a bible study were slain by a lone gunman in 2015, who was later arrested and sentenced to death.
With headlines like these and other acts of violence being perpetrated at places of worship and beyond, the conversation about how to keep congregations safe while they attend services and other functions are being had by parishioners and religious figures alike.
Along with churches, local members of law enforcement and representatives at the state level are engaging in talks to address safety and security at places of worship and an example of state-level actions came during the ongoing General Assembly session as a measure allowing for guns to be brought inside churches was approved by the State Senate and now heads to the House of Delegates for consideration.
Senate Bill 372, introduced by Sen. Ben Chafin (R – 38th District) seeks to repeal the current prohibition on carrying a 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.
Last Tuesday, the bill narrowly passed the Senate on a 21-18 vote, with area representatives in the Senate Roz Dance voting against the measure while Senator Frank Ruff voted in favor of the repeal.
While the measure still needs to advance and pass through the narrowly-Republican controlled House of Delegates, The Washington Post reports it’s likely Democratic Governor Ralph Northam will veto the bill as an administration spokesperson told the newspaper, “The governor is ready to work with the General Assembly to promote responsible gun ownership, but he does not believe more guns in more locations is a solution to the real problem of gun violence.”
Even as state lawmakers debate the merit of allowing firearms and other weapons in churches while services are going on, that conversation is at the fore for congregations in Dinwiddie as they discuss how to keep their church families safe.
In December, the Dinwiddie County Sheriff’s Office and Dinwiddie Public Safety partnered to host another church safety and security forum after several churches reached out to the county’s law enforcement agencies in the days and weeks after the Sutherland Springs shooting.
During their forum that was open to all churches who wanted to attend, officials with the sheriff’s office walked through a detailed presentation where parishioners were told violent events at places of worship are not uncommon and the number of incidents has been increasing over the past several years.
It added, between 2000 and 2016, there were eight active shooter incidents in places of worship, with Sutherland Springs being the most recent in 2017 and the most deadly shooting at a place of worship in U.S. history.
The message that the Dinwiddie Sheriff’s Office wanted to drive home is that have people leave the mindset of something like Sutherland Springs and Charleston not happening in their community while taking proactive steps to address issues, including formulating plans, communicating and practicing their emergency plans with their congregation.
Even before lawmakers in the Senate voted to repeal the current prohibition on guns inside houses of worship, Adams said the discussion about guns in churches has been had in the pews and common areas of the county’s church community.
“Just about every church we go to, people are torn about whether or not guns should be allowed in churches,” Adams remarked. “That is something that churches are going to have to work out.”
According to the Code of Virginia, “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,” that person would be guilty of a Class 4 misdemeanor, which is punishable by a fine of up to $250.
For Adams, the language of the current law, specifically the except where it states the weapon can’t be brought to a place of worship holding service “without good and sufficient reason” leaves the law open to interpretation.
“If it is for a good reason, you can carry it inside,” Adams remarked. “I think the law is vague as to whether you can or you can’t carry a weapon inside right now.”
In a 2011 opinion issued by then-state attorney general Kenneth Cuccinelli regarding the law, he stated it was his opinion that “carrying a weapon for personal protection constitutes a good and sufficient reason under the statute to carry a weapon into a place of worship while a meeting for religious purposes is being held there” and “places of worship can restrict or ban firearms from their premises.”
“The Constitution of Virginia protects the right to bear arms, but it also recognizes the importance of property rights,” his legal opinion read. “Moreover, the Second Amendment acts as a restraint on government, not private parties. Churches, synagogues, mosques and other religious entities can, like any other owner of property, restrict or ban the carrying of weapons onto their private property.”
While the opinion was written by the then-lead attorney of the Commonwealth, the document was only Cuccinelli’s interpretation of the statute when he was asked to provide “an official advisory opinion” by Delegate Mark Cole (R-88th District) in April of 2011.
As the discussion of allowing firearms and weapons inside places of worship continues, Adams said there are plenty of things congregations and church leaders can do now to help keep their church communities safe.
“The biggest thing that we teach the churches is to have a plan of action,” he said. “Whatever that plan is, and it’s going to be different for every church, make sure you have meetings to ensure that members are aware of the plan so they know what to do if something does happen. We also make ourselves available to go over the plan with them to help them see it through and let them know if we think their plan is good.”
Even though December’s forum focused on violent crime, Adams said congregations need to also think about property crime when developing their safety and security plans.
“There are thieves that prey on cars in church parking lots,” Adams said, noting a past outbreak of similar crimes before deputies made an arrest in the case. “They would wait until the church service started and then go through every car they could find unlocked and take something out of them.”
“Having an observer outside can mean a lot as far as security,” he continued.
When speaking about the forum, Adams said he and his department are always willing to help the community enhance their security and safety efforts in any way they can.
“Anyone who was called me wanting to talk about things, I have not turned them away,” he said. “If anyone in Dinwiddie wants information on something or a seminar, I am all for it. If I don’t know the answer, I will find somebody in another jurisdiction that can teach that class.”
“Dinwiddie is probably one of the nicest counties to live in,” Adams continued. “I say that from my heart because, with all that is going on in the country, it really hasn’t gotten here and we are blessed that it hasn’t, but it can happen anytime and anywhere.”