A new law allowing armed security inside places of worship is designed to bolster security in churches across Mississippi, but it’s leaving Jacksonians wondering if mixing guns and worship will make their churches safer or more dangerous.
The Church Protection Act, signed by Gov. Phil Bryant last month and slated to go into effect on July 1, allows church members to undergo firearms training and carry holstered weapons without a permit. Although the National Rifle Association has called this is a “big win” for gun rights in the state, but others aren’t so convinced.
Opponents of the law have said that putting more guns in unpermitted hands is a danger to the public and would make churches less safe. The Mississippi chapter of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America called the law “extreme” and said Gov. Bryant was “dramatically expanding the right to carry” guns in the state, according to an ABC News report.
In February 2015, representative Andy Gipson introduced the law as a response to the Charleston, South Carolina, shooting, of that same year, when 21-year-old Dylann Roof opened fired inside the AME Church and left nine dead. Gipson has argued that the law gives congregations the option to defend themselves against an attack. The law expands on a 2015 measure that allows concealed carry without a permit in a briefcase, purse, or satchel.
Some church leaders don’t oppose the bill. Pastor C.J. Rhodes of Mt. Helm welcomes the new law, even though his church has gates and a guard patrolling the perimeters as security measures. Yet he told WJTV, “But we don’t want the whole congregation carrying guns to serve us.”
At Greater Bethlehem Temple in West Jackson, Pastor Ervin Ricks finds bullets lodged in the walls close to 10 times in a year, the AP reports. “I don’t know that there’s a more dangerous community in Mississippi to live in,” he said. And while the church does not oppose gun ownership because many congregants hunt and shoot for sport, worshippers are asked to leave weapons at the door. “It’s incumbent on us to say we’re Christians and show what that looks like.”
However, the law has drawn opposition from the state police association, which believes that lowering the requirements to carry concealed guns will ultimately make it harder for law enforcement to stop those engaged in wrongdoing while also raising the “threat level” against officers.
Anti-gun activists like MDAGSA chapter leader Shirley Hopkins Davis told ABC that the Church Protection Act will bring Mississippi back to the “wild, wild west.”
Mississippi isn’t the first state to allow holstered weapons without permits, though. It’s the ninth. Other states leave the issue to the churches to decide. An additional 20 states allow guns in churches due to “right to carry” laws, but lack specific legislation allows the weapons inside these parishes. Meanwhile, North Dakota and Georgia are the only states whose laws prohibit all guns from places of worship.
The impact of laws allowing churches to have guns on site is not conclusive. However, according to church security consultant Carl Chinn, there have been 703 gun-related incidents between 1999 and 2015. This leaves room for debate about whether the law is a “dangerous setback,” as some anti-gun organization members have called it, while others feel safer with a weapon, like concerned churchgoer Melissa Sullivan.
“The bad guys are gonna have a way to get their point across,” she told the AP recently. “We have to have a right to defend our family.”