Arkansas House waives gun-ban in churches

A law designed to draw churches into the gun-control debate has passed the Arkansas House of Representatives and is expected to be signed into law by Governor Mike Beebe (D). The legislation lifts a seldom-enforced ban on guns in churches.

The Deseret News reports:

Among those expressing concerns is The Rev. Scott Walters, pastor of Christ Episcopal Church in downtown Little Rock. He wrote in a letter to the Arkansas Times that the ban, while likely never enforced, did give clergy a better tool to avert a disaster than letting churches decide whether concealed weapons should be allowed in their sanctuaries.

"The Legislature's action has already impacted our ministry at Christ Church. It's given us one more hurdle, one more fear to deal with as we try to do our Christian duty and welcome a stranger into our midst as if he or she were Christ himself," Walter wrote. "Its impact is not hypothetical. It is real. Loving our neighbor just got a little harder."

But Pastor Elmo Johnson of Third Street Baptist Church in Little Rock said that although he won't carry a gun, he is not opposed to the idea of letting churchgoers pack heat after an armed robbery during a Sunday service three years ago.

The thought of the proponents is that churches are "soft-targets" where most people are unarmed and unprotected and that somehow the idea that someone somewhere in church may be carrying a weapon will deter attacks and robberies.

Here is what the Rev. Scott Walters wrote to the Arkansas Times.

The Arkansas legislature is supposedly giving pastors means to protect their parishioners by allowing congregations to decide for themselves about whether guns are allowed in their churches. What could be wrong with that? To be honest, even though I believe our culture has a troubling trust in the power of firearms, I tend to resist giving churches special treatment legislatively. Taken in the abstract, I could almost be convinced that if it's legal to carry guns elsewhere it should be legal to carry them into church. Life, however, is not an abstraction.

I happen to be the pastor of a church in downtown Little Rock, a city that I love, but the stats suggest that it is also one of the most violent cities in America. At Christ Church we're used to opening our doors to the homeless and indigent on our streets. Most of these people are gentle and kind, just looking for a place to say their prayers. Some of them show up high, many suffer from mental illness. We give them a seat. We invite them fully into our worship. We have also grown wise as serpents and gentle as doves, knowing when it might be time to draw a boundary or even call the police if need be. In nearly 8 years here I've seen plenty, but I've never wished I had a gun.

Last Sunday, an usher saw what looked like a pistol butt poking from the bulging pocket of a visitor's pants — a clean, respectable looking visitor, mind you. Now, is there a sane person among you who thinks that the usher's first thought was, "Praise be! We're all a little safer here today because this pleasant fellow whom I've never seen before is packing heat"? Of course not. The armed hero of our dreams tends to be someone we know and trust. The usher rushed anxiously to another priest and reported her very understandable concern.

We did not confront the visitor. I'd met him before some months ago on one of his very infrequent visits. I doubt that he was actually carrying a firearm. But the response of that usher was rational and responsible, because our state legislators had recently put the idea of carrying a gun into churches on the front page of nearly every newspaper in the state. Thanks for that, honorable sirs and madams.

Now, of course we have the "freedom" to post "No Firearms" or "Gun Free Zone" signs around the church. This strikes me a lot like putting up bars on windows and barbed wire on fences, which then become de facto announcements and self fulfilling prophecies that this is the kind of place where bad things happen. Fear begets fear begets fear. My faith tradition teaches that perfect love is what casts out fear.

Our legislature has spent time and effort on a symbolic bill repealing a ban that I'd wager has rarely if ever been enforced in Arkansas. Although I can imagine the original ban being useful to some frightened pastor who could tell an unstable parishioner that it wasn't the pastor's idea, but the law says you've just got to leave your gun at home. Confrontation mercifully averted.

The legislature's action has already impacted our ministry at Christ Church. It's given us one more hurdle, one more fear to deal with as we try to do our Christian duty and welcome a stranger into our midst as if he or she were Christ himself. Its impact is not hypothetical. It is real. Loving our neighbor just got a little harder.

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