A proposal to allow concealed handguns in Arkansas' houses of worship is dividing religious leaders on whether easing the firearm rules would offer more protection to congregants or disrupt the sanctuary that they try to offer every week.
A proposal to allow concealed handguns in Arkansas' houses of worship is dividing religious leaders on whether easing the firearm rules would offer more protection to congregants or disrupt the sanctuary that they try to offer every week. The Arkansas Senate plans next week to vote on a bill that would allow churches and other religious institutions to decide whether to allow concealed handguns. Among the 49 states that allow some form of concealed handguns, Arkansas is among 10 that prohibits them in churches and other houses of worship, according to the National Rifle Association. Past efforts to remove that prohibition have failed in the state Legislature, but gun-rights advocates believe they're well poised to pass the measure now that Republicans control the House and Senate. Gov. Mike Beebe, a Democrat, has indicated he'll likely sign the measure if it reaches his desk. "Churches need to be able decide how to handle their own security," Sen. Bryan King told reporters after a Senate panel endorsed his proposal earlier this week. King, R-Green Forest, said he plans to ask the Senate to pass the measure next week. But churches and other religious institutions around the state are divided over whether the state should give them that power and who — if anyone — they'd allow to carry handguns inside their facilities. The proposal is attractive to some rural churches, who say they can't afford armed security and are often faraway from police or sheriffs should a violent incident occur. Nathan Petty, pastor of Beech Grove Missionary Baptist Church in Fordyce, has advocated for the measure since it was first introduced in the 2009 session. Petty said allowing churches to make the decision on concealed handguns would give them an option for offering some security throughout the week, not just on Sunday mornings. "Criminals don't respect the sanctity of a sanctuary," said Petty, who is also a concealed handgun instructor. "People understand that's an area where people are going to be unarmed." Petty, however, said the decision on whether to allow concealed handguns is one he would leave up to his church's members should the legislation pass. Other religious leaders are urging lawmakers to reject the proposal. The Rev. Larry Benfield, the Arkansas Bishop for the Episcopal Church, on Thursday sent a letter to Beebe opposing the guns-in-church legislation and said he would urge the 57 congregations around the state he represents to not allow concealed weapons if it becomes law. "I think people need to be able to enter a church without fear that guns are present," Benfield said. Rabbi David Lipper of Temple B'Nai Israel in Little Rock says he's worried that allowing guns in a place as busy and crowded as a church or synagogue would make worshippers less safe, not more. "We have too many kids, too much activity, too much running around jumping around to trust that someone even with the right training could make the right choice in a serious situation," Lipper said. The issue strikes home for members of the Legislature, some of whom are clergy themselves. Rep. Chris Richey, who is also the pastor of the Delta Fellowship Church in Helena-West Helena, said he plans to vote for King's bill if it reaches the House. But Richey, a Democrat, said he's unsure whether he'd want his church's board to approve concealed handguns if given that open. "I can't say the idea of having guns in church excites me," Richey said. "It's not an idea I'm comfortable with, but that's got to up to the churches and the churches getting together and deciding that and not the state." Leaving that decision up to churches is why Rep. Hank Wilkins, a Democrat and an opponent of past attempts to allow guns in church, says he's keeping an open mind about King's legislation. Wilkins, the senior pastor of St. James United Methodist Church in Pine Bluff, said he would consider allowing some members to carry concealed handguns if the measure passes. "It's a sad commentary on our society I feel to even think that that's something I have to consider and yet when I see what's happening in our society I can't help but consider it may be a necessity," Wilkins said. ___ Andrew DeMillo can be reached at www.twitter.com/ademillo