Citing a 2015 church shooting that left nine people dead in South Carolina, some Mississippi lawmakers are pushing a bill that would allow churches to post armed guards.
Dubbed the Mississippi Church Protection Act, the bill would allow churches to create their own security forces by training parishioners to handle guns. The bill would bypass state concealed carry laws by allowing the newly-minted church security guards to carry holstered weapons, according to the Clarion-Ledger, and it would afford legal protections to those guards if they fire their guns while protecting a church.
"It breaks my heart to offer a bill like this," said Republican state Rep. Andy Gipson of Mississippi, who is also a church minister. "Churches used to be one of the safest places."
Mississippi's state Senate passed the bill, sending it on to the state's lower house. It would need approval there, and a signature from Republican Gov. Phil Bryant of Mississippi, before becoming law.
Supporters say the measure is necessary after the June 17, 2015 shooting at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. The accused gunman, 21-year-old Dylann Roof, allegedly opened fire with a handgun, killing nine people who were participating in a Bible study session, including Democratic state Sen. Clem Pinckney of South Carolina.
“A sign on a door will never stop a mass murderer," said William Perkins, editor of the weekly Baptist Record, per the Clarion-Ledger. "A trained, licensed gun owner might be able to do so. Any reasonable person would have to wonder if the outcome would have been different at Mother Emanuel Church in Charleston, S.C., if there had been at least one trained, licensed gun owner present."
Others oppose the bill for a range of reasons. Democratic State Rep. Kevin Horan of Mississippi told the Clarion-Ledger that the bill doesn't define what qualifies as a church, which could lead to potential enforcement problems.
Democratic State Sen. Hillman Frazier of Mississippi accused Republicans of using churches as an excuse to broaden gun laws in the state.
"We don't need to pimp the church for political purposes," Frazier said, per The Associated Press. "If you want to pass gun laws, do that, but don't use the church."
Police groups have also come out in opposition to the proposed law. Ken Winter, executive director of the Mississippi Association of Chiefs of Police, told the AP that arming church members would make it more difficult for police to identify people who might approach a church intending to commit violence.
"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," Winter said.