On December 8, a federal court upheld several key provisions of New York’s Concealed Carry Improvement Act, which prohibits guns in “sensitive places,” including government buildings, bars, restaurants that serve alcohol, medical facilities, public demonstrations, and Times Square.
But the court blocked some provisions of the act, including a ban on guns in houses of worship. Under the 2022 law, guns are prohibited by default in private businesses that are open to the public, like restaurants and stores, leaving property owners to decide whether to allow civilian firearms in their establishments. Houses of worship did not have that option.
“Now, houses of worship can choose for themselves if they will or will not allow religious adherents to carry a weapon lawfully on their property,” Jeremy Dys, an attorney who represents one of the plaintiffs, told The Trace. “They may choose not to carry personal weapons and elect instead to have security, that’s fine. But at least they are making that choice and not the government.”
Aspects of New York’s concealed carry law, which state legislators passed in response to the Supreme Court’s Bruen decision, have been overturned and reinstated several times in the last year and a half as a result of lawsuits brought by pro-gun groups and residents. This latest ruling combines four similar cases in an effort to inject some stability into the process while challenges make their way through the lower courts, which could take months.
In the meantime, New Yorkers may find themselves next to gun-toting civilians in the pews. While some religious leaders believe that armed followers will provide an additional layer of safety, others are uneasy about allowing firearms into sacred spaces.
The Reverend Stephen Cady II has been vocal about not wanting guns inside Asbury First United Methodist Church in Rochester, where he serves as senior minister. “Houses of worship in particular are looked at as sanctuaries,” Cady said. “I think there is a loss of sanctuary, of safety, when you step into a place that is surrounded by those with weapons.”
While acknowledging that some members of his community might feel differently, Cady said he did not believe that more guns increased people’s safety. “Or else the United States would be a really safe place right now.”
The decision to halt the ban in houses of worship comes amid a rise in gun-related bias incidents motivated by the Israel-Hamas war. Since October 7, according to the Gun Violence Archive, there have been at least five such incidents in the U.S. The most recent, on December 7, involved a man who fired a shotgun outside a synagogue in upstate New York, saying “Free Palestine” as officers arrested him.
Armed civilians have struck back against attackers in places of worship, though such incidents are rare. A gunman who attacked the Sutherland Springs Baptist Church in Texas in 2017 was wounded by a former firearms instructor who lived nearby and grabbed his AR-15 after he heard gunshots. The gunman had already killed 25 people and wounded 22 others, however. In 2019, a volunteer security team member at West Freeway Church of Christ in White Settlement, Texas, fatally shot a gunman who had killed two congregants during Sunday services. The victims were also members of the church’s volunteer security team.
Another plaintiff, Pastor Joseph Mann of Fellowship Baptist Church in Parish, a village in upstate New York, said he wants to be able to defend his congregation from “folks coming in off the street and opening fire,” citing Sutherland Springs.
“Obviously, we want to call the police as fast as we can” in the event of a shooting, said Mann, who carries a concealed gun on the job. But police response time in the rural town of about 450 people can be as long as 20 minutes. “When a gun attack takes place, it’s usually seconds,” Mann said.
To that end, Mann’s church has assembled a volunteer civilian security force. “We had a police officer that did some training with us, took us to the range and whatnot,” Mann said. “Just in case that day arises, we want to be trained.”
Dys said his client, Pastor Micheal Spencer of His Tabernacle Church in Horseheads, a village of 6,600 in the state’s Southern Tier region, also feels strongly about self-defense. Spencer has received death threats that necessitated police involvement. “In fact, the reason he maintains his concealed carry permit is because law enforcement advised him to do so,” Dys said.
Cady, the minister in Rochester, said he received different advice. Several years ago, federal and local law enforcement held active shooter preparedness trainings with local houses of worship, including Asbury Park United Methodist. They recommended that parishioners not have guns in church “because it makes it harder to determine who the shooter is,” Cady said.
Such confusion has led to tragedy in the past. A concealed carrier who killed an active shooter at a shopping center in Arvada, Colorado, in June 2021, was fatally shot by police when he picked up the gunman’s rifle. “I thought there were two shooters,” the officer who fired the fatal bullet said. In 2018, police killed a Black concealed carrier after he brandished his legally owned gun in response to a shooting at a mall in Hoover, Alabama. That same year, a white police officer killed a Black security guard while responding to shots fired at a bar in Robbins, Illinois.
For some religious leaders, the risk is worth it if lives can be saved. Spencer argued in court that New York’s gun ban violates his First Amendment right to free exercise of religion because it places limitations on churches that private businesses are not subjected to. As a result of the Second Circuit ruling, he plans to let properly licensed parishioners carry guns. Spencer prefers armed congregants over hired security, who would be “working for a paycheck — not acting pursuant to a spiritual calling,” according to court filings.
Spencer is not alone: According to a June survey of Protestant pastors by a Christian polling service, 54 percent said they relied on armed parishioners to provide security, up from 45 percent three years ago.
Some religious leaders prefer to rely on law enforcement for security. An imam at one upstate New York mosque said that since October 7, police have stepped in to provide protection during busy periods, such as Friday prayer. “They’re making sure that nobody will do anything stupid right now, and that everybody is protected,” the imam said. He asked us not to identify him or his mosque, saying that the Israel-Hamas war had created such a “volatile” environment that Muslim community members were concerned about being targeted.
Guns are the most common weapon used in attacks against places of worship, according to a 2020 report from the Department of Homeland Security’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Agency (CISA). In 27 percent of armed attacks against U.S. houses of worship between 2009 and 2019, the perpetrator struck during the service, CISA found. Nearly a quarter took place on or around a religious holiday, when attendance was higher.
“Houses of worship have major symbolic importance within their community and, as such, can draw hostile attention from would-be perpetrators,” the report found.
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Mass shootings in places of worship have become more frequent in the last 20 years, according to The Violence Project, a nonprofit that tracks shootings in which four or more people were killed in a public space. Some of the deadliest incidents include Sutherland Springs; the 2018 shooting at Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh that left 11 people dead and six others injured; and the 2015 shooting at Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, which left nine people dead, including a state senator, and one person wounded.
Cady said Asbury Park United Methodist does not have an armed volunteer security team, and does not plan to assemble one. “I just do not believe that the answer to guns is more guns,” he said. “That may be counterintuitive right now, given the proliferation of guns in our country. But I want to help people see another way. And that’s hard to do at gunpoint.”