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Church group sues New York State on gun law restrictions

The state's recent package of gun laws included a ban on weapons in certain sensitive locations. One in particular listed was "Houses of Worship."

BUFFALO, N.Y. — New York State's revised concealed carry gun permit law — which was approved by Gov. Kathy Hochul and lawmakers earlier this year to address the U.S. Supreme Court ruling, which struck down the previous state law — is now facing a new legal challenge.

This time it is coming from members of the religious community.  

Governor Hochul and the legislature's answer to the Supreme Court's ruling, striking down their original concealed carry gun permit law, was to approve another package of gun laws. That included a ban on weapons in certain sensitive locations. One in particular listed was "Houses of Worship."

This federal lawsuit against the state police superintendent and county district attorneys was filed on behalf of 25 churches in Niagara, Orleans, Genesee, and Cattaraugus counties and other churches elsewhere around the state. It was coordinated through a Rochester-based group called New Yorkers for Constitutional Freedoms. 

They contend many houses of worship, at the request of clergy and other church leaders, actually have groups of volunteers who have concealed carry permits and are prepared to defend other members of the congregation. This stems from shooting attacks at churches and synagogues around the country.

The group also says there have been instances in Texas and elsewhere where an armed member of a church congregation actually stopped someone shooting in a church. 

Now they're questioning why the state specifically in its law would only allow such protection by a trained certified security agency or active or retired law enforcement church members. 

Rev. Jason McGuire, executive director of New Yorkers for Constitutional Freedoms, said: "Under the written law as it's written, that is not permitted. You have to be an employed professional security team, or you have to be active or retired law enforcement. That is something that not every church across the state of New York has or has the ability to hire professional security teams. We're looking at oftentimes trained volunteer security teams, and the law does not allow for that."

McGuire added: "Frankly there are people who didn't want it to be known they were engaging in this. But there are congregants in churches sitting in the pews, sometimes they're more formal than that, but they are armed for the purpose of being there to protect the congregation during morning worship services.

"You know every time the governor speaks in a church, and she's done a lot of that lately, she takes an armed detail with her. We're simply saying that the family sitting in that pew deserves the same protection that the governor is accorded when she goes into a house of worship."

2 On our Side previously reported on this question last month as church leaders in East Buffalo, who wished to remain anonymous, told us they had such armed volunteers for services because they did not want to be "sitting targets" for a shooting attack such as the one which specifically targeted Black residents at the Tops Market in May.

They also revealed the Tops shooting suspect was seen on church surveillance video, casing an East Buffalo church a week before the terrible store attack.  

The Associated Press reports there was a hearing before a federal judge in a similar case last Friday in Syracuse. That case includes a pastor in Oswego County who carries a gun into his church and home, where he does some religious work. It is also challenging the legality of this state law.

A spokesman for the governor's office replied they had no comment on pending litigation. He referenced the legislation, which makes exemptions for church members who are current or retired law enforcement, military, or registered security officers.

But there is nothing in the rules about trained volunteers. 

Erie County Sheriff John Garcia, a Republican, who called the new package of laws "unconstitutional and unenforceable," said his office got calls from concerned church members who carry. He said armed "volunteers" in church feared they could be charged with a felony.

When WGRZ covered this issue before, a state spokesperson emphasized this law was enforced at the discretion of local law enforcement and they would be responsible for any decision to bring charges.

But published accounts quote First Deputy State Police Superintendent Steven Nigrelli as saying troopers were standing ready to enforce the new laws.

"It's an easy message. We have zero tolerance. If you violate this law, you will be arrested. It's as simple as that," Nigrelli said.

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