A place of worship is a sanctuary and an asylum. It is a place for families and friends to gather and celebrate their religion— a place of prayer that should be safe and free of violence. This may all be compromised in Louisiana by the passage of Act 944, which allows certain citizens with concealed handgun permits to bring their firearms into places of worship.
Under Act 944, churches, synagogues, and mosques are allowed to choose which concealed handgun permit holders—if any—are allowed to bring guns onto their premises. If a place of worship does allow some parishioners to carry handguns, they must announce that decision to their congregation. To attain a concealed handgun permit in Louisiana, applicants must undergo an instant computerized background check and complete nine hours of gun safety training (a one-time requirement). If a permit holder is selected to carry a gun in a place of worship, he/she is supposed to complete eight additional hours of training per year. However, according to the Louisiana State Police, it is up to the place of worship—and not law enforcement—to determine what type of training is acceptable and enforce this policy.
Advocates of the bill claim that the law will make churches safer and make it easier for people to protect themselves, but opponents argue exactly the opposite. Laura Cutilletta, a senior staff attorney for the Legal Community Against Violence, says, “Studies show that the more guns are around, the more opportunities there are for injury and death … If you bring guns into places of worship, they are increasing the danger to the families that are going there.”
During a February incident in an Orlando church, a man was shot in the foot after an NRA instructor’s handgun accidentally discharged during a gun safety class. If highly-trained professionals have accidents with their guns, how can we assume that average citizens with minimal training will perform better?
The rules regarding the use of lethal force in Louisiana are also a concern. A few years ago, the state eliminated residents’ duty to retreat to avoid violent conflicts. In the past, if it was possible for a person to remove him/herself from a violent situation without using deadly force, they were required to do so. But the new law reads, “A person who is not engaged in unlawful activity and who is in a place where he or she has a right to be shall have no duty to retreat before using deadly force…and may stand his or her ground and meet force with force.” Residents are now justified in shooting and killing someone if they believe they are in imminent danger of receiving “great bodily harm.” Are parishioners in Louisiana’s places of worship more likely to confront deranged mass murders or engage in mundane confrontations with friends, neighbors and acquaintances—confrontations that could escalate into something more dangerous because of the presence of firearms? It’s a question that should have been asked before Act 944 was signed into law.
Religious organizations in Louisiana are divided over the issue of concealed weapons in churches. Bishop Sam Jacobs of the Diocese of Houma-Thibodaux has stated that concealed weapons will not be allowed in any Catholic churches in the state. In contrast, Pastor Steve Folmar of the First Baptist Church of Houma has stated that members of the congregation will be allowed to carry weapons if they wanted to. “By and large, anyone with a permit is a law-abiding citizen and would not be a person with a probability for endangering other people,” he stated.
Louisiana, however, is a “Shall-Issue” state, which means that as long as an applicant passes an instant computerized background check and meets a set of basic requirements, the state must issue a permit. Unfortunately, dangerous individuals can slip through the cracks of this minimal screening. For example, a person who was convicted of a misdemeanor crime of violence may attain a concealed handgun permit as long as five years have passed. Additionally, residents who have previously been the subject of restraining orders can also obtain permits. Mental health screening is also quite menial.
CSGV board member and Presbyterian minister Jim Atwood has stated that it is a travesty that a place of worship would be associated with any policy that promotes violence. “The truest form of religion is about life and peace,” he said. “It is not advocating trust in deadly instruments. There is no such thing as security in the world, but we human beings spend our lives seeking it in wealth, position, power, and guns. True security is loving God with all our hearts, minds, and strength; and our neighbors as ourselves.”
Bishop Sam Jacobs of Louisiana sees it as a human rights issue: “Our churches are places of worship and sacred spaces. Yes, we respect the rights of someone to carry a concealed weapon if they have a permit. But at the same time, we have rights as well and we do not wish our rights to be violated to honor that person’s right.”