Virginia wants to allow guns in churches in wake of deadly shootings

Churchgoers in Virginia could soon legally bring their guns alongside their Bible after a bill cleared the state Senate last week and sparked a heated debate about whether packing heat could help save lives -- or is a slap in the face of God.

The bill passed on strictly partisan lines -- 21 Republicans supported it and 19 Democrats opposed it. But the debate was turned heated.

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To Republicans, not allowing religious houses to arm themselves is like leaving them as lambs to a potential slaughter. But for Democrats, lifting the ban would mean putting worshippers at risk of themselves.

The bill would repeal a law that reportedly dates back to colonial times, which makes it a misdemeanor to carry "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 at such place."

Virginia Republican Sen. Richard Black, a veteran of the Vietnam War who wants to repeal the law, pointed to the mass shootings at a Sikh temple in 2012 and at the African Methodist church in South Carolina in 2015.

"These folks are uniquely vulnerable because they're lined up in a church pew; exiting the pew is very difficult. It makes them the ultimate target," Black said. "Either you cower in place or you fight back."

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But Democrats saw it in a different light.

"We are saying with this bill, we no longer trust in God," Virginia Democratic Sen. Lionell Spruill said. "We ... foolishly took prayer out of schools ... and now we want to take God out of church. If there's anywhere you can trust God, it should be the church. Let's depend on God on this one. Let's not take God out of church."

Another Democrat, state Sen. Chap Petersen, added that when you enter a house of worship, you should lay down your firearm.

But Black, a former Marine, talked about his experiences with God and guns.

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“Somehow it’s thought that having guns present in church is going to exclude God from those churches. I gotta tell you, I’ve been too many places where men who were armed to defend themselves and defend their nation went into battle often knowing that they were not going to survive and they were not going to come back out, and I have no doubt that God was not excluded from their presence.”

The bill would still have to clear the House before it heads to the governor's desk.