Friday, February 8, 2013

Arkansas Law Change: The Church Protection Act

I am the pastor of a small church in Arkansas. I am not a lawyer, so check with a legal professional before you make any adjustments based on what you see in this blog post. And, just for the record, if you make major legal decisions based on blog posts, you really, really should not.

This past week a bill passed both houses of the Arkansas Legislature, and at the time of this writing, it sits on Governor Beebe’s desk to sign into law. Given the large majorities it carried in the Chambers, even if Governor Beebe changes his mind and vetoes the bill, it will become the law in Arkansas.

That law is Senate Bill 71, dubbed the Church Protection Act. There are a couple of facets to address about this law. I’ll take the easy one first: the bill “declares an emergency” so that the law goes into effect as soon as it is signed. I think it could have gone into effect with a 30-day delay or on a set date like most state laws. The haste attached is going to make for wrong interpretations being put into play  and is unnecessary and unhelpful.

The rest of the bill is what is really at stake. Here in Arkansas we have a law that allows an individual to take a safety course, submit to an FBI background check that includes fingerprinting, and then be allowed to carry a concealed handgun. The training focuses on safety and decision-making, though it is not on a par with professional law enforcement training. The license is good for 5 years.

The unevenness of the FBI Background Check system is one that needs addressed in general: apparently, the FBI does not have all the information in their system that we would expect. Certain states do not report issues like violent mental illness diagnosis into the system. That’s a problem—and should be fixed. The submission of fingerprints helps prevent crime and uncaught criminals from getting a license: your fingerprints will be in the system now—so they’ll catch you if you have left fingerprints or do leave fingerprints.

The law, as it was, barred a license holder from carrying certain places: state government offices, hospitals, bars, sporting events, schools (yep, it’s illegal to have a gun at school), and houses of worship. There has been some discussion regarding changing the law as it regards houses of worship (which, in Arkansas, are mainly churches but is the more religiously-neutral term). Why? Well, most houses of worship do not have security services but do have a lot of people. That differentiates a church from say, a Razorback game: the Hogs have security. Most churches/synagogues/temples/mosques do not.

The change in the law that has passed is this: a house of worship may now “determine who may carry a concealed handgun into the church or other place of worship.”

The media is reporting this as a “Guns in church” law. So is the NRA. Both are over-extending the meaning. This law does not mean that anyone with a valid Concealed Handgun License can carry their concealed handgun into any church.

Churches remain, legally, no concealed firearms allowed locations. That is the law and it is not changing to a wide-open “bring your Glock to Church” system.

Instead, each house of worship may determine if they will allow someone with a valid license to carry on their grounds. It would appear that this decision may take three forms:

1. Leave the absolute prohibition in place. Most will likely do this: no action by the house of worship means that it is still illegal to carry your handgun there. The church would then, if someone carries into the church, be free to call law enforcement for help in the matter.

2. Decide, through however the church decides, to allow any valid license holder to carry on the premises. This decision will have to be communicated somehow—because if you do not know if a house of worship has done this, you are likely breaking the law carrying your handgun onto their property. DO NOT ASSUME  you have permission. Some churches may do this.

3. Decide to specify which valid license holders may carry. A church could designate that deacons or a security team or only church members with valid licenses may carry on the church grounds. Anyone else would be prohibited, automatically, based on the law.

This last option will likely be the most common Baptist decision, but it’s hard to say. There are some additional risks here: if you approve Deacon A but not Deacon B, Deacon B may be upset by this—why did you not approve him? Why only men on the security team? What about the WMU? (The longest running Baptist pastor fear is an armed WMU, honestly.)

Moreover, there are liability issues to talk over with legal people: are you responsible, as a church, if you designate Deacon A to carry a gun and he uses it wrongly or chooses not to use it in a situation?

Be clear about this, because the law is not: You should not carry your handgun to church this Sunday just because you hear “The Guns in Church Law PASSED!” You are likely committing a firearm crime by doing so. Which can cause you issues. At the very least, you can lose your license if not your firearms.

What do we do?

1. Prayerfully make a decision. There is a place for praying and trusting, a space for praying and posting a guard. Just ask Nehemiah.

2. Seek some wisdom and expert advice. Not just blog posts.

3. Consider everyone’s safety. Especially if you do choose to carry and are allowed to do so: a threat in a hallway is markedly different than a threat in a large, crowded room like the sanctuary.

In all, as this law shakes out, it is helpful. It allows churches the same freedom businesses have and stops treating religious centers like they impair judgment like bars or state government offices. Many Arkansas houses of worship are like mine: rural and very detached from law enforcement. We have to consider what the risks are and prepare for them ourselves—Little Rock has police available, but many small towns might not.

But this is not the opening of the Wild West. If your church does not want firearms on the property, no one is forcing that on you. If your church does, no one is stopping you.

Either way, be cautious in how you speak to the issue: I have seen some hot-headed responses that make some churches sound like not only are guns unwelcome, but any gun owner would not be; others sound like only ‘real men’ carry, which is also untrue. Remember the goal of the church is the Gospel, not any single political issue. If you can’t preach the Gospel to armed or unarmed people, you might need to rethink your views.

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