Firearms expert: Senate gun bill would leave Vermont churches vulnerable

By Guy Page

December 30, 2019 – This weekend’s shooting at a Texas church and stabbings at a New York Hannukah celebration demonstrate that houses of worship must be able to defend themselves from murderous attackers, Vermont Traditions Coalition Firearms Policy Expert Bill Moore said in an interview today. But legislation proposed by Sen. Phil Baruth (D-Chittenden) likely would prohibit parishioners from carrying effective self-defense firearms in church, he said.  

About a minute and 10 seconds into video of the Ft. Worth-area shooting, footage shows just six seconds passed between when the shooter revealed his shotgun and when armed parishioners shot him down. In those few seconds he was able to kill two people. Without the swift response by parishioners serving as volunteer security guards, “the data says that there would be upward of a dozen or more people killed, and the shooter would not have been taken down before police arrived, or taken his own life. That’s sort of the standard model,” Moore said.

Sen. Baruth announced Dec. 3 he would sponsor a ban on semi-automatic weapons in public places, including “parks, stores, restaurants, airports, places of worship, auditoriums, theaters and childcare facilities,” as well as political demonstrations, VT Digger reported.

Sens. Richard Sears (Chair, Judiciary) and Tim Ashe (Pro Tem) both seem open to at least consider the bill. “It’s hard to see why you need to carry an assault weapon at a football game,” Sears reportedly said.

At present, guns are banned only from schools and some government buildings. Baruth’s bill would allow public carrying of handguns and non-semi-automatic rifles. The intent of the ban would be to limit only “assault weapons,” thus deterring more mass killings with powerful semi-automatic rifles. But such good intentions would have the opposite effect, Moore said.

“This is a conversation that has to begin – the private, lawful carry in self-defense,” Moore, of Johnson, said.  “Sen. Baruth’s bill will advertise gun-free zones to predators and put people in risk by forcing them to store their guns in their cars.”

To make matters worse, guns stored in cars left in church parking lots for a couple of hours are far more likely to be targeted by thieves than, say, guns left in a home or being carried by the owner.

Churches in Vermont already allow or encourage defensive firearms in the pews, to varying degrees. “I’m aware of at least one church in Johnson that encourages people to conceal carry in church services,” Moore said. Another central Vermont church allows selected parishioners with firearms experience to “conceal carry,” after undergoing a national church security training program. Unarmed church greeters may carry pepper spray and monitor visitors and the congregation for possible shooters.

Gatekeepers Church Safety Ministry, a national organization, consults with churches on protecting against acts of mass violence. It emphasizes that the communal suffering of a mass killing continues long after the dead are buried and the physical wounds are healed. Survivor suffering continues, especially so in victims’ families, and a church’s ability to serve and witness can suffer, too. In short, the whole church suffers, and usually for a very long time.

Moore cautioned that security isn’t just about guns. “Armed parishioners are just one example of how people in public spaces can protect themselves against armed intruders.” At the New Jersey Hannukah celebration invaded by a machete-wielding attacker, “once the rabbi knew what was happening, he began throwing chairs at him. He probably saved lives.” Some Vermont churches use security cameras to watch for dangerous-looking individuals preparing to enter the church, and teach greeters and ushers to monitor, peacefully engage, and notify of potential problems.

A bi-partisan bill co-sponsored by Sen. Maggie Hassan (D-NH) assuring funding for security in rural churches was approved by Congress Dec. 20. It has been sent to President Trump’s desk for his signature.