Two bloody tragedies, just a few hours apart on December 28-29—the mass stabbings at a synagogue in Monsey, New York, and the thwarted mass shooting at a church in Forth Worth, Texas—have put questions about guns and public safety in a valuable new light. How do we stay safe? Especially in our houses of worship? And what should we do about the menace of marauders in our midst?
Yet at the same time, we could also say that the New York and Texas attacks put the public safety issue in a valuable old light. How so? Because we are seeing the right of each state to make its own decisions—for better or for worse, as the case might be—as enshrined in our founding document, the U.S. Constitution. That is, the Founders fully intended for the states, not the central government, to take responsibility for many matters.As James Madison wrote in Federalist #45, published in 1788 as the Constitution was being ratified, “In the first place it is to be remembered that the general government is not to be charged with the whole power of making and administering laws. Its jurisdiction is limited to certain enumerated objects. … The [state] governments … will retain their due authority and activity.”
This is federalism. Federalism isthe principle that the states should be sovereign, operating within our national federal system; as Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis wrote in 1932, the individual states should each be “laboratories of democracy.” Hopefully, over the long run, these “laboratories” will all find their way to better results, although, of course, there can be no guarantee that every state will do the smart thing.
Sometimes, perhaps the best we can hope for is that the failures of some states will at least provide instruction to the others; as Army drill sergeants say to dud recruits, You can still serve a useful purpose—as a bad example!
So now, in the last few days, we’ve seen the results of two grisly “experiments” within our federal system. In New York, the assailant at the Netzach Yisroel congregation managed to stab five worshipers before he was subdued by the police. In Texas, the assailant at the West Freeway Church of Christ managed to shoot and kill two innocent victims before he himself was killed by an armed parishioner. The Fort Worth cops were rushing to the church, and yet, were it not for heroes already on the premises, the assailant might have killed many more in those precious seconds and minutes.
Indeed, Texas Department of Public Safety Director Joeff Williams paid tribute to West Freeway’s vigilant guardians on the afternoon of December 29: “The citizens who were inside that church undoubtedly saved 242 other parishioners. … It was miraculous. … [They were] true heroes.”
In fact, the state’s Republican leadership as a whole deserves credit for helping keep churchgoers safe. As The Forth Worth Star-Telegram reported, a 2017 legal ruling from the state’s attorney general clarified the legal right of churchgoers (with the church’s permission) to bear the arms needed to defend the congregation:
A Texas law went into effect in September 2017 that allows churches to hire armed guards. Attorney General Ken Paxton clarified months later that the law also allows licensed handgun owners to bring their firearms to church as long as the church does not oppose it. The clarification was released in an opinion by Paxton after a November 2017 shooting at the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs. Twenty-six people were fatally shot, and another 20 were wounded.
We might note that at the time of this Texas ruling, national liberals were spluttering with outraged opposition. For instance, in 2017, Joe Biden sniffed about Paxton’s legal brief, “It’s just absolutely irrational. It’s totally irrational.”
Yet now, in 2019, we can see the life-and-death difference that robust self-defense can make: If an evil-minded gunman walks into an undefended church, he can kill or injure scores. But if an evil-doer walks into a defended church, he himself is dead within seconds. Sorry, Middle Class Joe: It’s totally rational for churches to be prepared for trouble.
As the West Freeway church’s senior minister, Britt Farmer, said on December 29, “I’m thankful our government has allowed us the opportunity to protect ourselves.”