The Mississippi Church Protection Act, which expands gun rights inside and outside state sanctuaries, passed the state Senate, 36 to 14, on Tuesday. It will now return to the House, whose approval would poise Mississippi to become the ninth state where a permit is not required for concealed carry firearms.
"I wish we lived in a world where this bill wouldn't be necessary," the bill's author, state representative and Baptist deacon Andy Gipson (R), said after the House approved it in February, according to The Clarion-Ledger. The House will now debate amendments introduced in the Senate.
Since Dylann Storm Roof killed nine parishioners at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C., last June, later designated as a racially motivated hate crime, many gun rights proponents and pastors have stressed the importance of emergency plans for houses of worship, including armed guards or congregation members.
Bill opponents protest that the Mississippi bill is not necessary to protect churches, however. Critics also say that its name, the Church Protection Act, distracts from other gun rights it would expand, such as the right to carry a holstered, concealed gun without a permit.
"We don't need to pimp the church for political purposes," state Sen. Hillman Frazier (D) told lawmakers. "If you want to pass gun laws, do that, but don't use the church."
Currently, Mississippi's concealed carry permits do not apply to houses of worship. Under House Bill 786, houses of worship could designate and train members to wear concealed firearms during services. Those members would be shielded from liability if they shoot someone committing a violent crime.
State lawmakers cited scriptural principles to both support and oppose the bill, fueling a tense debate on safety, firearms, and religion.
Senator Frazier spoke with a sheathed sword in hand, according to The Associated Press, reminding senators of the story of the Garden of Gethsemane in the Gospel of Luke, when Jesus healed a servant whose ear his disciples had cut off as the crowd tried to arrest him before the crucifixion.
Senate Judiciary Division A Committee Chairman Sean Tindell (R), however, called churches' self-defense "a God-given right."
The clash echoed debates around the country, with church leaders and politicians inclined to "turn the other cheek" confronted by others arguing that self-defense is a Christian value, as well.
The National Organization of Church Security & Safety Management, which offers training and planning resources, also cites the Book of Luke on its website: "But now if you have a purse, take it, and also a bag; and if you don't have a sword, sell your cloak and buy one."
Its "Founding Scripture," NOCSSM says, is 1 Chronicles 9:21-24. "The gatekeepers were stationed on all four sides – east, west, north, and south," as verse 24 reads.
Other Mississippians worry that the Church Protection argument is being used to issue in unrelated gun rights.
Under HB 786, permits would not be required for guns concealed in a holster, expanding a 2015 law to allow permit-free concealed carry in a purse, briefcase, or satchel. The measure has been applauded by the National Rifle Association, but opposed by the Mississippi Association of Chiefs of Police.
"We just don't believe that it's a good idea for people to be carrying concealed weapons and not have participated in any training," executive director Ken Winter told the Associated Press.
If the amended bill passes the House, Mississippi would become the ninth state to allow permit-free concealed carry. Others include Alaska, Arizona, Vermont, and West Virginia.
The bill also forbids state officials from complying with national regulations enacted by federal agencies, not Congress, if they violate the Mississippi constitution, a provision some senators argued would violate the US Constitution's Supremacy Clause.
"Where did you go to law school?," state Sen. Hob Bryan (D) asked colleagues. "Are they telling people there that the Mississippi constitution trumps federal law?"