Lawmakers Push to Allow Trained Congregants to Bear Arms

Opinions vary about efficacy and safety of allowing members of religious communities to carry loaded guns to services, classes

With concerns about anti-Semitism and house of worship safety on the rise, a bipartisan trio of lawmakers is sponsoring legislation that would allow trained members of religious congregations to carry guns.

“We’re not always going to have the luxury of having police officers, armed security, fully trained, years of experience in our houses of worship,” said Assemblyman Ron Dancer, an Ocean County Republican who’s a cosponsor of A-1255 with Passaic Democrat Gary Schaer and Morris County Republican Jay Webber. “But we can have this. And at a minimum, we should have this to save lives.”

The measure, largely similar to a bill that was introduced during the recent legislative session but did not move out of committee, would allow a congregation member to carry a weapon to protect fellow worshippers during services.

Backing for the proposal

The proposal has found supporters both among gun rights advocates and members of the state’s large Orthodox Jewish community. Others have urged caution in allowing those other than trained law enforcement personnel to carry lethal weapons.

There’s renewed interest in armed security among members of different congregations, particularly after the deadly shooting at a kosher grocery in Jersey City and the machete attack during a Hanukkah celebration in Rockland County, New York; both were labeled hate crimes targeting Jews. Anti-Semitic and other bias incidents spiked in New Jersey last year, state officials say.

According to gun range operator Anthony Colandro, more Jews in New Jersey are now acquiring gun permits.

“We’ve seen about a 300% increase of religious, Jewish people — Sephardic Jews, Orthodox Jews and Hasidic Jews — coming in to shoot, because they want to protect themselves and their family,” said Colandro, the owner of Gun for Hire in Woodland Park.

Colandro supports the bill.

“All you need is one synagogue, mosque or Catholic church to be attacked and have the congregants armed and fire back, and I think evil will change its tack and it will think twice before they go in and do it again,” he said.

At gun range, opinions vary

Opinions varied on the merits of the measure among those at the gun range, with many saying that it takes a good guy with a gun to stop a bad guy with a gun. Some referenced the December shooting at a Texas church, where a trained marksman with a handgun worshiping with the congregation shot and killed the armed intruder who burst into a Sunday service.

“I think if you put guns in the hands of people that are good, you’ll protect everybody involved,” said gun owner Harmony Corbisero.

“I do agree,” said Ron Vargo. “As long as he passes all the background checks and he’s qualified, I don’t see why not.”

Another of the gun-range clients who identified himself as Joe R. also endorsed the measure.

“I go to synagogue every day and of course on Saturday, as well, and the need for protection is there,” he said. “Take up arms, safely, and arm yourself.”

Maerlin Delorbe was a dissenting voice.

“I don’t agree,” she said. “I think there should be a ban on guns. It’s just very dangerous material to carry around, regardless of what’s going on.”

Russel Kelner is the president of the Golani Rifle and Pistol Club, with a largely Jewish membership. He, too, supports the bill.

Armed guards on Sabbath

“Yeah, I think it is a step in the right direction and it could be effective,” he said. “Most synagogues now have armed guards. We’ve seen an uptick, about 200% in my community, of the different synagogues that have armed guards now on Sabbath on High Holy Days, things like that. So, this is just natural progression, I think.”

At the same time, Jackson Police Capt. Dan Schafer is uneasy about arming a worshiper who’s not trained in police tactics.

“They react, whereas an officer is always intent, observing, highly trained … not just weaponry, but in tactics,” he said. “It becomes muscle memory for him. It’s something that he does every day. So, it’s not a reaction, it’s an action.”

Schafer, who’s a pastor at an Assembly of God church, has advised more than 400 ministers about security at houses of worship, how to set up surveillance cameras, harden a perimeter and plan for a shooting scenario.

“The church is a soft target,” he said. “You’ve got innocent people that aren’t expecting something tragic to happen like that.”

Shafer, who also had concerns about legal liability, said the devil is in the details of this bill.

One of the state’s dominant gun-control groups also expressed reservations.

“We definitely have some concerns and some questions for the sponsors,” said Sue Hannon of the Brady Campaign.

For shooting hobbyist Brian Goldberg, it’s all about training.

“In the proper hands, it is only a positive,” he said.

The bill defines a place of worship as a “church, mosque or synagogue, used primarily as a place of public or private worship on a permanent basis by a recognized and established religious sect or denomination registered as a not-for-profit under the federal Internal Revenue Code.”