LITTLE ROCK — A law recently enacted by the state Legislature gives church leaders a decision to make: Whether to allow people to enter the church carrying concealed handguns.
Act 67, titled The Church Protection Act of 2013, gives churches the option of allowing people with concealed-handgun permits to carry their guns into church. Previously, Arkansas law prohibited concealed handguns from being taken into churches, among other places such as state offices, athletic events not related to firearms and meeting places of government bodies.
Churches that choose to allow guns can extend the authority to select individuals or to all permit holders.
Some church leaders say they believe having armed people in the congregation will make their churches safer. Others say weapons are not appropriate in a place of worship.
"In this day and time we’ve had several shootings in churches, and that kind of stuff is getting nearer and nearer to home. I don’t think it would be a bad idea," said the Rev. Schanon Caudle, pastor of North Park Baptist Church in Van Buren. "You just never know."
Caudle said he has not declared a policy for the church, but he would not object to allowing certain church members to carry concealed weapons in church, if they request permission and can give a good explanation for their request.
"I don’t think it ought to be a blanket invitation for everybody to carry one," he said. "I think it would hurt your witness in the community, if you found out that was a church where everybody was carrying a weapon."
Catholic churches, however, have been instructed not to allow concealed handguns. After the law was enacted in February, the Diocese of Little Rock sent a directive to pastors stating, "Bishop (Anthony) Taylor has stated that all weapons, whether concealed or unconcealed, are prohibited on the premises of all Catholic churches in our diocese. The only exceptions are law enforcement officers in the exercise of their duties and ceremonial blunt swords used by the Knights of Columbus."
"In our experience, in Catholic churches they haven’t been necessary," said Dennis Lee, the diocese’s chancellor for administrative affairs.
Noel Bryant, a deacon at St. Joseph Catholic Church in Pine Bluff, said he thinks it is wrong for any church to allow weapons.
"Jesus told Peter in the Garden of Gethsemane, ‘Put your sword away.’ I think he would say the same thing now: ‘Put your guns away. Don’t bring them into my house,’" he said.
But the Rev. Quenton Rowan, pastor of Howard Hill Assembly of God in Greenwood, said he supports the law, and in fact sent emails to legislators urging them to pass it.
"As a pastor, if I’m up at the stage end of the church and some guy comes walking through the back doors and starts shooting, it would be completely unsafe for me to start firing back at him from that position because I’d have an entire congregation between me and him. … I would like to have a couple of guys licensed to carry and have them carrying within the church just to take care of that threat," he said.
Rowan said he had received a directive from the national and district Assemblies of God and had not yet had time to pore over it, but at first glance it appeared to leave the decision up to individual churches while recommending against allowing guns.
He said his inclination is to allow a select few to carry guns, if they have concealed-carry permits and if they go through safety training that the church would provide, in addition to the training required by the state to obtain a concealed-carry permit.
"I don’t think it’s one of those things that we would just open the doors and say, ‘Hey, if you come here, go ahead and carry,’" Rowan said.
Separate legislation was proposed this year that would have required churches that allow concealed weapons to post warning signs, but the language was amended out of the bill, which ultimately failed anyway. Rowan said he would not be in favor of posting a warning sign — or a sign saying guns are not allowed — because he would prefer that a person considering doing harm not know whether people in the church may be armed.
"I’d like to put a sign out front that says ‘We don’t call 911,’ just to give you the hint: If you come in here messing with us, we’re going to take care of business," he said.
The legislation that failed also would have guaranteed churches immunity from civil lawsuits over actions of people carrying handguns and would have specified that the decision whether to allow guns was up to a church’s governing body or the person with the ultimate decision-making authority over the church.
Sen. Bryan King, R-Green Forest, the sponsor of Act 67, said he saw no need for the proposal that failed, which was sponsored by Reps. Reginald Murdock, D-Marianna, and Darrin Williams, D-Little Rock. But King said the Legislature can revisit the law in two years if issues arise.
King said he filed the bill out of concern over the ability of churches to defend their congregations against violence, particularly in rural parts of the state where authorities may not be able to arrive quickly. He said the response from churches to the new law has been mostly positive, and even those that opposes guns in church are generally OK with the law when they learn that it is optional.
"And let’s just be honest: Several churches were doing it anyway," he said.