Thursday, February 07, 2013

The State of the Church: packin' heat

I have grave concerns regarding SB 71, known as the "Church Protection Act of 2013", which removes houses of worship as exempted places where concealed carry weapons are not allowed under current law.  This is a violation of the sanctity which has been, and should continue to be, the sanctuary that is inherent to all houses of worship.

I had expressed my concerns to Arkansas state Senator Bruce Maloch who indicated his support for the bill, to state Representative Lane Jean who did not respond to my letter at all, and to Governor Mike Beebe whose office only acknowledged receipt of the letter (although Gov. Beebe had previously indicated he will sign it if it reaches his desk).  This is the same reaction we received from the "leader" of the state who, after having signed the lottery bill into law, indicated he was personally opposed to the lottery and thought it an ill-conceived measure.  Well done, governor.  It is always comforting to know of your personal opposition to something you officially approve with the stroke of a pen.  I suppose we may expect the same in this matter: your voice from the back of the room.

The disturbing language of the bill which claims to address an "immediate necessity ... to public safety" and declares "an emergency" is, in my humble opinion, a panicked, emotional overreaction (which is always dangerous!) so soon after the Sandy Hook tragedy and amidst the talk in Washington DC about gun control and the 2nd Amendment.  There is no indication this bill has been carefully considered as to the potential burdens of liability which will be placed on houses of worship should this bill become law (it currently lacks only the governor's signature).  The occurrence of violent incidents in houses of worship is so miniscule in the broad spectrum of gun violence that this bill does not lend itself to an "immediate necessity" since no "immediate necessity" seems to even exist.  It is also arguable as to whether a state of "emergency" actually exists.  The language of the bill itself is panicked rather than measured! 

Houses of worship are protected by current law.  This bill on its basest level seeks to remove this protection altogether ... as a matter of "immediate necessity" because an "emergency" exists?  I fail to see how.  As the pastor of a church, I am disturbed at the idea of armed parishioners, other parishioners concerned about who may or may not be carrying, the necessity of posting signs advertising whether a church prohibits weapons or allows only designated persons, enforcing a church's chosen policy to prohibit weapons, etc. 

It must also be considered that in such a litigious culture as ours, it is quite possible that someone could be hurt and the church held liable since the legislature "allowed" (mandated, actually) churches to make these decisions for themselves.  It is no longer assumed houses of worship are gun-free; this bill allows that all permit holders may carry weapons into a church.  The individual house of worship will have to make a public declaration, presumably post signs outside, and decide whether or how to enforce its own policy. 

Houses of worship must decide to declare "designated" persons (or any permit holder) who will be allowed to carry a weapon, and the burden of careful selection falls on the church should that church decide to allow weapons by designated permit holders.  Given the limited training permit holders have undergone, a liability factor must consider that a permit holder who has not been "battle tested" and has only faced stationary targets that don't shoot back could conceivably panic at a clear or even perceived threat and inadvertently hurt an innocent bystander.  In another scenario, a "bad guy" could come into an "advertised" unarmed church and do harm. 

Surely it can be said that the church, rather than being protected by the state and having been left to its own devices, could conceivably be found to have been "negligent" in ensuring the safety of worshippers since the state now "allows" (mandates?) the church to be responsible.  It seems a reach, but we must consider the lawsuits churches face and have faced because adequate background checks were not done on volunteer child care-givers and youth workers.  This is one more burden churches do not need and are not equipped to administer effectively because a background check cannot speak to a person's potential state of mind under duress.  This is the very reason police officers must undergo psychological testing before being accepted as an armed officer!  And even they get it wrong sometimes even after so much testing and continuous, on-going training.

This bill has the potential to create more problems yet unforeseen (or even conceived of) than it will solve, and it cannot be quantified that any lives will be saved or lost from this measure.  I will grant that no value can be assigned to even one life lost or preserved, but I dare say this measure is not the way to go about it. 

I would argue that as surely as the 2nd Amendment grants citizens the "right to keep and bear arms" (this seems to be the state of "emergency" the bill refers to), the 1st Amendment also grants to houses of worship all reasonable measure of protection from government intrusion - and by government from intrusion.  The law as it currently prohibits weapons in houses of worship is reasonable and adequate.  Now is not the time of radical departure from what has evidently worked very well.

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