A bill approved in the Georgia House that would clear the way for licensed gun owners to bring a weapon into church is an unnecessary initiative, several midstate pastors and worshippers said.
Earlier this week, the Republican-controlled House approved a measure that would remove the ban on carrying a firearm into a house of worship. Instead, the bill would make it incumbent on the church to ban weapons if it chooses. The measure now goes to the state Senate for consideration.
But many Macon-area clergy say their houses of worship already are safe, and that allowing worshippers to carry weapons could create an atmosphere that would lead some churchgoers to avoid services altogether.
“I really think (legislators) are trying to solve a problem that doesn’t exist,” said the Rev. Jimmy Asbell, senior pastor at Vineville United Methodist Church. “It’s going to make it more difficult for churches, having to take the initiative (to ban weapons). How do you police that? We’re gathering in the name of the prince of peace.”
Asbell -- and all of the other pastors interviewed for this story -- made it clear that they were giving their own opinions about the bill and not speaking for their churches. Most of the clergy said they haven’t had formal meetings yet with their church elders or administrative boards to discuss a formal policy on allowing or banning weapons.
Asbell noted that he himself has a conceal-carry permit and isn’t against the Second Amendment. But he does oppose HB 875.
“(Creating a weapons policy) takes time from our primary work,” he said. “I don’t see the logic in it. ... I’ve talked with other local clergy about it, and we all hope it would be the sort of thing that didn’t get traction” with lawmakers.
The Rev. Allan McDonald of St. Joseph Catholic Church said his church’s policies on such matters are ultimately decided by the bishop in Savannah.
“If the law encourages this, I’d be very concerned,” he said. “If any violence occurs in a church, it would have to be re-consecrated. I don’t want to see a vigilante situation created.”
Many houses of worship employ off-duty deputies or private guards, often outside the building, to provide security for worshippers. Rabbi Aaron Rubenstein of Congregation Sha’arey Israel said his synagogue has employed an off-duty officer for years and never had any incidents.
“My own take is that because we’ve engaged a police officer, it’s our way of making (the synagogue) a secure place,” he said. “I’m not questioning someone’s Second Amendment rights, but a sanctuary should be a place of prayer. It doesn’t feel great if it’s an armed camp. I’d get it if we’re talking about an Israeli soldier on the front lines or an American soldier in a similar situation, but (a gun in a house of worship) leaves me unsettled.”
A recent poll commissioned by The Atlanta Business Chronicle before the bill passed the House showed that 52 percent of Georgians surveyed were against allowing guns into a church, while 29.7 percent favored it and 18.3 percent were undecided.
Some men and woman who attend religious services regularly said the idea of residents bringing a gun with them actually made them feel less secure, not more.
“No, no, no!” said 80-year-old Caroline Kicklighter, a longtime member of Macon’s First Baptist Church of Christ, when asked if she favored the bill. “I’ve never heard of such nonsense. ... There are too many people out there with emotional and mental health issues. ... I can’t imagine why this (bill) came up. Has Georgia run off the cliff?”
Johnny Brannen, 75, who also attends First Baptist, said his father was a police officer who always put his gun in the glove compartment of the family car when they headed to church.
“So far, I don’t see the need for it,” he said.
But other churchgoers said the law would make them feel safer if their churches don’t ban weapons.
Jack Caldwell, 78, another member of First Baptist, said he’s for the law.
“We’re a downtown church, and we sometimes have no idea what has taken place downtown,” he said. “It’s best to be certain. It’s strictly for safety. ... Hopefully, you don’t have to use it, but the doors are open to anybody. I’ve never felt unsafe here, but you hear things in other places and you want to take precautions. It’s not 1950. It’s a different world.”
Church security often outside
Hamp Dowling, who owns Eagle Gun Range in Macon, said some midstate pastors who are gun owners shoot at the range. He said he’s in favor of the new law, which also would allow guns to be carried in bars and would reduce penalties for anyone carrying a gun on a college campus or at the airport.
“I’m all for carrying a gun,” he said. “I refuse to be a victim.”
He noted that even congregations that do employ security officers often have them outside the place of worship, not inside.
“I think about that all the time,” he said. “I’m a firearms instructor. I teach good people how to protect themselves from bad people all the time.”
The only change Dowling would like to see to Georgia’s gun laws is to require anyone applying for a conceal-carry permit to take mandatory training before the permit is issued. Most other states that issue permits have that mandate, he said, and the law as it’s now written makes it too easy for anyone to get a license.
David Ballengee, a Perry-based National Rifle Association firearms instructor, said he doesn’t think the government has a right to limit what people do on private property, which he said includes houses of worship.
“I know several pastors who favor having a choice,” he said, adding that he could foresee a scenario in which someone might be opposed to certain religious views and become violent. “There are zealots out there, and it’s very fathomable that someone could do something stupid” against a house of worship.
Though support for allowing guns in places of worship has been largely partisan to this point -- Republicans have supported the bill while most Democratic lawmakers oppose it -- at least one prominent Republican questions the need for it.
State Sen. Cecil Staton, R-Macon, said he has issues with the way the House bill is written.
“Without reservations, I’m very concerned about a church or synagogue having to have a meeting of its elders to take a vote on opting out of this law,” he said. “I’d much rather this be something that’s opt in than opt out. That’s less intrusive.”
Staton said he agreed with the view that some clergymen hold that the state is trying to fix a problem that doesn’t exist. Staton said he’s spoken with constituents who are against the measure.
“I don’t think we ought to force a house of worship (to make a decision to opt out),” said Staton, who noted that he is a gun owner and collector. “I’m pro-Second Amendment, but at the same time, we’re in search of a solution to a problem that doesn’t exist.”
To contact writer Phillip Ramati, call 744-4334.