In Texas, Parishioners Tote Bibles ... and Guns

Reaction is mixed to state's more relaxed stance on carrying concealed weapons.

The Rev. Rick Scarborough still remembers one of his toughest assignments as a onetime evangelist. Back in the 1970s, he had to offer comfort to the parishioners of First Baptist Church in Dangerfield, Texas, who were still grieving after a lone gunman had entered their sanctuary, shot 13 people, and then took his own life.

For Mr. Scarborough, the Dangerfield shootout showed the importance of allowing citizens to be armed for their own protection, even in church.

"I told reporters that if a couple of law-abiding citizens in the pews had handguns under their coats, this would have never happened," he says.

It was to prevent such brutal events that Texas and 42 other states enacted laws allowing citizens to carry concealed weapons. While Texas was late in joining this movement, passing its concealed-weapons law in 1995, the state may have some of the most liberal gun laws in the country. Last year, state lawmakers took their concealed-weapons law a step further, expanding the number of public places where Texans could carry weapons, including church, hospitals, and amusement parks.

"When we first passed this law ... people were saying there's going to be bullets in the pews," says state Sen. Jerry Patterson, a Republican from the Houston suburb of Pasadena.

Senator Patterson says he pushed for the new amendment at the insistence of Texas ministers, who told him the 1995 version of the law placed restrictions on their right to carry weapons to and from work. One gun-packing pastor who lives on church grounds complained that he couldn't even legally go home.

Needless to say, proponents of gun control, including law-enforcement officers, are not enthused about the new law. They cite recent studies showing the possible harmful effects of having more guns on the streets, as well as in the pews.

According to one study, conducted by the Violence Protection Center in Washington, Texans with concealed-weapons permits were arrested for weapons-related charges at twice the rate of the general population. The crimes included everything from murder and robbery to aggravated assault and kidnapping.

"The presumption here is that people who get gun licenses are the cream of the crop - they're practically candidates for sainthood," says Joseph Sudbay, director of state legislation at Handgun Control Inc., a Washington based gun-control group. "But people make mistakes."

To be sure, the Patterson amendment has elicited a mixed reaction in pulpits across the state. Some pastors praise it, others have muttered lamentations. Most agree that the law has a very Texas feel to it.

"It's like the death penalty," says the Rev. Richard Daly, spokesman for the Texas Catholic Conference in Austin, which lobbied against the concealed-weapons law and the Patterson amendment. "People in Europe are appalled at the number of people Texas executes each year, and they see it as a lack of civilization But I tell them, 'We still have this frontier mentality.' "

As for the law itself, he adds, "It's a nuisance. A church is supposed to be a place of sanctuary."

The Rev. Tim Roberts, pastor of the New Hope First Baptist Church in Cedar Park, Texas, says the new law is unlikely to affect his congregation.

"I am a little surprised that there would be a need for such a law," says Mr. Roberts. "I have faith that God will protect us whatever happens."

By taking away government's ability to restrict guns in churches, the law put the decision into the hands of churches themselves. Pastors can post signs reading "No guns allowed," or inform parishioners individually of a no-guns policy.

One of the few Austin pastors to take advantage of this loophole was the Rev. Kirby Garner of the San Jose Roman Catholic Church. But after less than a month, he changed his mind and took the signs down. "They looked so ugly," the tall, genial padre says, as parishioners file out of enormous oak doors of the Spanish-style stucco church. "I mean, nobody here is going to take a gun to church anyway."

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