Arkansas, on Feb. 4, became the eighth state to pass legislation allowing concealed guns specifically in churches. In a lopsided bipartisan vote, state legislators voted to allow each church to decide whether individuals with concealed carry permits could take guns in church for personal protection.
Louisiana, Michigan, Missouri, South Carolina, Utah, Virginia and Wyoming also have laws allowing concealed guns specifically in churches, with varied stipulations, including the possession of a proper permit, training, church approval and congregational awareness, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Additionally, about 20 other states allow guns in churches because of "right to carry" laws, but have not specifically focused on churches in legislation.
In the past year, at least 75 people were violently killed on church and faith-based property in the U.S., setting a new national record, according to Jimmy Meeks, a Southern Baptist preacher and Texas police officer who conducts seminars encouraging and training churches to properly arm themselves with guns.
Differing views on whether worshippers should carry guns at church can be found among Southern Baptists, ranging from Meeks to an Arizona pastor who shared on ChurchExecutive.com that he carries a concealed handgun in the pulpit, to a Louisiana pastor who recommends worshippers arm themselves with the "full armor of God" and perhaps employ off-duty police officers.
Meeks, whose next church safety seminar is scheduled May 6-7 at Wedgwood Baptist Church in Fort Worth, Texas, told Baptist Press churches need to realize the importance of creating a safe place to worship.
"If they don't believe it's necessary, they won't do anything. It won't matter if you pass laws allowing them to bring guns to churches if they don't think it's necessary. So you have to move beyond what I call the superstition that is much more prevalent in churches than spirituality," Meeks told Baptist Press. "Many people believe there is something, divine protection, over a building that has a steeple on top of it -- and that is superstition.
"Jesus said in Matthew 10:17, they will harm you in the house of worship. And we have all these people who have died for the faith, down through the years and who've died in churches," Meeks said. "So the first thing you have to do is just realize, this is a problem and we need to address this."
Wedgwood is the site of the Sept. 15, 1999, attack when a gunman entered the church during a youth activity, fired more than 100 rounds from two handguns and exploded a homemade pipe bomb. He killed seven youth and wounded seven others before killing himself. Since then more than 425 people have been violently killed at houses of worship and faith-based property, Meeks said, adding that more than 125 of the victims were Baptist.
Larry Dickey, pastor of First Baptist Church in Sunizona, Ariz., wrote that he carries a gun in the pulpit because churches can't rely on law enforcement officials to keep congregants safe.
"If someone were to come into our church with a gun or a knife, they could do a lot of damage before the police could get into the church. Even if we had officers in the parking lot, by the time they could get inside, it would be over," Dickey wrote on the website. "We, as citizens, need to protect what we love and be willing to lay our life on the line for them."
The New Orleans metropolitan statistical area had the highest murder/non-negligent homicide rate in the country in 2010, at 20.8 incidents per 100,000 people, according to FBI statistics. There, First Baptist New Orleans pastor David Crosby told Baptist Press that putting guns in the hands of worshippers would do more harm than good.
"Regular church attenders packing heat to protect themselves at church? I think that is a more dangerous scenario than what I have experienced thus far in 40 years of being a pastor," Crosby said. "I think worshippers should arm themselves with the full armor of God. But allowing the general population to carry concealed weapons to church is likely going to end up in a net increase of more innocent people dying. The presence of a weapon immediately escalates any kind of disturbance, including domestic or mental illness, to the lethal level."
Crosby advises churches that feel the need for security to employ off-duty police officers, as his church sometimes has done.
"I would advise any congregation that felt the need for greater protection to follow this time-tested practice: utilize off-duty police officers. First Baptist New Orleans employed off-duty police officers for many years. They were armed and present on church property during worship services," Crosby said. "I have spoken to retired and active law enforcement officers about this matter. These trained professionals are aware of the need for vigilance and are happy to help any congregation develop policies that contribute to the overall security on the church campus."
Those who promote armed worshippers stress the importance of training and practice.
"In Texas, only about 3 percent of people authorized to carry guns carry them. Fewer than that are any good ... with them," Meeks said. "So for these people who say now we've got guns in church, that's OK, but if you're not trained, if you don't practice, you're gonna hurt somebody. [The apostle] Paul said to Timothy, train yourself to be godly. Train yourself. 'Exercise thyself unto godliness,' the King James Version says. In other words, godliness is the product of practice. You don't just wake up godly. You work at it."
Worshippers not willing to secure training and keep their skills up to date should not own guns, said Meeks, who lawfully carries a concealed gun to church as a police officer.
"If they're not willing to get training, you'd better leave that gun at home or, better yet, don't buy one to begin with," Meeks said. "And know the rules of a gun, the four rules: all guns are loaded; never point at anything you're not willing to destroy; never put your finger on the trigger until you're ready to pull the trigger; know what's beyond your target.
"If you miss the guy that came into the church with the gun, there's a good chance you'll hit the man behind him or the woman behind him, and what if that is your wife?" Meeks asked. "And stuff like that has happened."