Published March 7, 2013
Jonathan Jenkins is a card-carrying member of the NRA. He’s taken part in some shooting tournaments, placing in a couple of them. He has a concealed carry license.
And each Sunday, he takes his pistol and leaves it in his car before taking to the pulpit at Mount Carmel Baptist Church near the rural town of Buena Vista, about 30 miles east of Columbus. Like many with his background, he pays close attention to the current national debate on firearms, gun safety, and – as he sees it – at what point steps to strengthen safety may actually be threatening it.
“I hope and pray there wouldn’t come a time where we need to brandish a firearm in church,” he says, “but we live in a fallen world. There’s a responsibility to protect the ones placed in our charge, spiritually and physically.”
Since the Newtown tragedy in December the gun debate has intensified, with Arkansas on Feb. 4 becoming the eighth state in the country to pass legislation allowing concealed guns specifically in churches. The connection is made by many gun owners that gun-free zones – whether they’re elementary schools or churches – are more accessible targets for evil individuals who may or may not have attained their weapon of choice legally.
Jenkins differs slightly from that perspective, adding a spiritual component: “I don’t believe ‘gun-free zones’ are more likely to be targeted; people who are mentally impaired or evil will simply go to where more targets are to do the most damage. If they target [gun-free areas] it denies them credibility with a defense built around a mental defect or insanity because it shows premeditation.
“Today, evil people aren’t going to think that a church of any kind is off limits because it’s a place of worship. We’ve seen this proven in the shooting of a Sikh temple in Wisconsin and nondenominational Atlanta church within the last three years.”
In Georgia, churchgoers can leave their gun in their car in the parking lot, but not take it inside the church building itself. On Jan. 7 the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal from GeorgiaCarry.org, a gun rights advocate group, wanting the lower court decision upholding the guns-in-church ban to be overturned.
In addition to Arkansas, states allowing guns in a house of worship include Louisiana, Michigan, Missouri, South Carolina, Utah, Virginia, and Wyoming.
There are exceptions to the Georgia statute, however. Law enforcement and military service personnel are among others allowed to carry, as stated in Georgia Code 16-11-130. That’s key for churches like Jenkins’, which sits near a military base. It’s reality for Tom Vann, pastor of Rentz Baptist Church about 12 miles south of Dublin.
“We have several members of our church in law enforcement and I can count on one or two of them being armed at any time,” he says.
A gun owner who has a concealed weapons permit, Vann does urge caution in promoting a situation where anyone can bring a gun into church, though.
“You get into a slippery slope when the pastor is determining who can and can’t have a gun,” he points out. “I feel comfortable with people having guns who are competent with them, but don’t think it’s practical for the pastor or another designated person vetting who can and can’t be armed.”
Vann then cites a common theme – individual liberty – among gun owners in the debate.
“If the church’s policy allows [anyone with a carry license to have a gun], then that’s fine. For me, it wouldn’t be practical.”
In the original query of guns in churches posted by the Index on Twitter, Jenkins’ response echoed Vann’s: “... churches should have policies in place as to who is allowed to have [guns], and their use in emergency situations.”
“I don’t believe guns should be forbidden from the church, but also don’t believe untrained personnel should have them,” he told The Index. “I’m not for an ‘open carry’ in church. We have several retired as well as active soldiers who are also deacons and proficient with firearms. We’d have them become a security team that operates within protocols should a dangerous situation arise.”
Like Jenkins, Vann notes how gun violence at a church isn’t unheard of. In September 1999 a gunman walked into a youth service at Wedgewood Baptist Church in Fort Worth, TX and opened fire, ultimately killing seven and injuring many more. It was only three years ago – March 8, 2009 – that Southern Baptist pastor Fred Winters was shot as he stood behind the pulpit in the 8:15 a.m. service at First Baptist Church in Maryville, IL. Winters was hit four times in the chest and died later at a local hospital.
The gunman’s spree came to an end when his .45-caliber semiautomatic jammed. Even then, he pulled a knife and managed to injure two church members in being wrestled to the ground.
“The Texas shooter was stopped by a person on campus legally authorized with a firearm,” says Vann. “I’m a strong adherent that one of our constitutional rights is to bear arms. I understand people’s concerns, but arming law-abiding citizens is our best deterrent against criminals rather than taking their guns away.”
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