Not So Simple to Carry a Gun in a House of Worship

By Stephen Bryen*

It is not so simple to carry a gun in a church, synagogue, mosque or temple.  In the United States different state and local laws and how they are being interpreted, and many legal uncertainties, put a cloud over carrying a weapon in a house of worship.  Before you grab your gun and go to your local church, synagogue, mosque or temple not only do you need to have a legally purchased gun, but you need to find out if a concealed carry gun is legal where you live and legal in your house of worship.  In many cases you may find out you can’t bring your gun with you.

In the United States, carrying a gun may or may not be legal.  It all depends on the state and locality.  Some states prohibit carrying a gun in schools and churches even if you have an approved gun carry license. 

Concealed Carry Laws are very complex in the United States
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To carry a gun in many states requires that you obtain a gun carry license, sometimes called a concealed carry license.  Some states do not require a concealed carry license.  Other states won’t recognize a concealed carry license issued by another state.  And some states may severely restrict issuing concealed carry permits.  

As everyone knows, there is a big argument in the United States over gun laws and the second amendment to the U.S. Constitution (“the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”)  This argument plays out in a complex web of state and local gun laws across the United States and its territories.

In New Jersey, for example, if you apply for a gun carry permit  one must prove, with documentation, that there are specific, immediate threats to one’s safety that can’t be avoided. The New Jersey law was challenged in a case called Drake v. Jerejian. 

Edward A. Jerejian was the Presiding Judge in the General Equity Division of the Superior Court of New Jersey in Bergen County.  John Drake, who operated a business restocking and servicing ATM machines, claimed he carried large amounts of cash on him and needed to carry a gun for protection.  After initially being approved for a gun carry permit by the local law enforcement agency, the New Jersey State Police appealed against the decision of the local police department to grant a permit to Drake, and the Superior Court in New Jersey supported the New Jersey State Police objection.  A Federal appeals court upheld the New Jersey court’s opinion, and the United States Supreme Court refused to review the appeals court decision, meaning that in New Jersey it is virtually impossible today to get a concealed carry permit because of the severe restrictions on obtaining one. 

The fight in New Jersey is between advocates of concealed carry who oppose the state’s tough gun carry restrictions, and the New Jersey legislature and State Police who are actively doing whatever they can to block concealed carry. That fight is likely to continue, but right now court decisions are strongly favoring the State’s restrictions on guns.

Roosevelt Twyne, a 25-year-old African-American security guard, was arrested in New Jersey by Roselle Park police in February.  The police charged him with illegal gun carry and with possessing hollow point ammunition which is illegal in New Jersey.  

The arrested security guard had in his possession a State of New Jersey gun carry license.  He also carried a type of ammunition called “polymer-tipped Hornady ‘Critical Duty’ ammunition” which Mr. Twine’s attorney says is not hollow point. This type of round is in use by the security company that employs Mr. Twyne and has FBI approval.  However, the Hornady company says that this ammunition “maximizes the potential of a hollow point bullet.” Whether that means it is in fact a hollow point ammunition is not clear.

Generally speaking, hollow point ammunition is not banned in the United States, although the Hague Convention of 1899 banned bullets that flatten out or expand in the body, which is what hollow point ammunition is supposed to do.  The United States never recognized this provision of the Convention. New Jersey is the only state that bans hollow point ammunition.  Whether New Jersey’s law really includes the ammunition carried by Mr. Twyne remains to be determined.

New Jersey also is in a dispute over the Federal law called the Law Enforcement Officer’s Safety Act (LEOSA).  LEOSA provides that a retired officer can get a permit issued by his former police agency if he was a law enforcement officer for at least 10 years, has no mental issues, was discharged without prejudice, and has up to date gun safety training.  New Jersey does not recognize the LEOSA laws

New Jersey is not the only state clamping down on the LEOSA system.  In Florida some towns are refusing to issue permits and in a landmark case called  Camille Burban v. The City of Neptune Beach the city’s refusal to issue a LEOSA permit to a retired police officer was appealed to the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals which upheld the city’s right to refuse the permit, thereby severely narrowing the applicability of the LEOSA system.  In effect the Appeals Court said that the city was not required to show cause why it refused any gun permit.

There are still other unresolved problems with LEOSA.  It is not at all clear that a holder of a LEOSA permit would be allowed to carry a gun at a religious location or any other place where state laws prohibit the carry of a concealed weapon. So if one of your congregants has a LEOSA permit, both the congregant and the house of worship need to make sure that the LEOSA permit is recognized for use in house of worship in your state or locality.

Some states and jurisdictions do allow gun carry in schools and churches, synagogues, mosques and temples but only if the religious organization approves.  It isn’t clear exactly what constitutes approval in these cases.  For example, does the religious leader grant approval or does it require a resolution of the Board of Directors?  Must the approval be in writing or is oral approval permitted?  If an incident occurs, at it did at the West Freeway Church of Christ in White Settlement, Texas (near Fort Worth), and permission was not explicitly given, is the congregant with a gun still acting legally?  In Texas, which permits guns in holy places, there is nonetheless a Texas requirement to get gun carry permission of the religious institution. (This fact has been generally overlooked in news stories and commentary surrounding the incident at the West Freeway church.)

In Maryland there is under consideration a “Parishioner Protection Act would allow law-abiding members of a congregation to carry concealed handguns on church property if he or she has written permission from the governing body of a church, assuming they are legal owners of the firearm.”  This means that one would not need a concealed carry permit in Maryland if they brought a legally owned weapon to church.  Observers say that the Maryland legislature will not act favorably on this bill.

The bottom line is that the right to carry a gun in a church, synagogue, mosque or temple is very unsettled and is virtually impossible in some states, difficult in others, and still uncertain in some states and localities. Beyond any doubt, it is a complicated matter and those who are thinking about bringing a gun to church better do some research and check with authorities before doing so.

While bringing a gun to a church, synagogue, mosque or temple may appear to be an easy way to cope with the evolving threat to religious institutions, in the words of the Gershwin song from Porgy and Bess, “It Ain’t Necessarily So.”

Stephen Bryen is the author of a new book, Security for Holy Places: How to Build A Security Plan for Your church, Synagogue, Mosque or Temple (Morgan James Publishing). The e-book version is available for Kindle, Nook, ​KoboApple iBooks, Google Play and the paperback is available immediately here.