Arkansas panel OKs allowing concealed guns in churches
By: Associated Press - Texarkana Gazette -Published: 02/04/2009

Associated Press Rep. Beverly Pyle, R-Cedarville, left, and Grant Exton, executive director of the Arkansas Concealed Carry Association, listen during a meeting of the House Committee on the Judiciary at the Arkansas state Capitol Tuesday in Little Rock.

LITTLE ROCK—An Arkansas legislative committee has backed a bill allowing concealed weapons in churches, despite concerns of a pastor who said he was shot in a sanctuary two decades ago and still opposes the measure.

Pastor John Phillips Jr. told members of the House Judiciary Committee on Tuesday that churches should be safe places, free from weapons.

“As a group of lawmakers, are we really wanting to send the message that we are raising the white flag of surrender to the anarchy that’s in the streets and that the only way that our citizens can feel safe in their houses of worship and churches is that we come packing heat in the pews?” Phillips asked lawmakers.

But lawmakers endorsed the bill by Rep. Beverly Pyle, R-Cedarville, and focused most of their discussion on whether the legislation would place a burden on churches that decide not to allow concealed guns inside sanctuaries. Under current state law, any place that bans the guns must erect a sign that says so.

Phillips, now a minister at the Central Church of Christ in Little Rock, testified that a “deranged individual” shot him in 1986 while Phillips was working at another Little Rock church. Phillips said his life was saved by a member of the congregation, who came to his defense.

“I don’t know that having a concealed weapons individual designated to bear arms in the church that day would have made any difference in that situation,” he said.

The bill passed on a voice vote, and now heads to the full House.

Grant Exton, executive director of the Arkansas Concealed Carry Association, noted that the state’s law on where concealed handguns are prohibited primarily affects public spaces, like courthouses and polling places.

A church is “the only private entity that is singled out for not having the choice to make a decision themselves,” Exton said.

Many members said they were worried that churches that didn’t allow concealed guns would be forced to erect large, unsightly signs that would detract from a building’s architecture and beauty.

“I think you are dictating to a church that they have to have a sign,” said Rep. Jim Nickels, D-North Little Rock. “And I think that’s interfering with ... whatever their beliefs might be.”

Several pastors from churches around the state testified in support of the bill, saying they worried about the safety of their congregations.

“To me, being in church is probably one of the most vulnerable places anyone can be as far as an attack happening,” said Pastor Mark Thorton of the Big Creek Missionary Baptist Church in Malvern. “And if there’s no one there who can legally carry a handgun, we’re going to be on the 6 o’clock news.”