Guns at Church

Guns at Church April 28, 2016

Sunday was a dangerous time. When people left their homes and went to church, it provided an opportunity for trouble makers to commit crimes and to foment rebellion.

That was the thinking of the Carolina assembly in August of 1739, when it passed what was called the Security Act. The bill required all white men to carry firearms to church on Sunday, a time when slaves typically had time off. Runaways, epidemics, and tension with Spain had colonists worried about the possibility of a slave revolt, and the legislators feared trouble on Sunday in particular. The Security Act would take effect on September 30.

Meanwhile, three weeks earlier, on September 9, a revolt began.  Slaves gathered near the Stono River, about twenty miles removed from Charlestown. They killed two shopkeepers, killed a white family, and began heading south, ultimately hoping to reach Spanish Florida. The rebels killed perhaps twenty or twenty-five people in all.

By the afternoon, however, dozens of whites caught up to them, killed thirty or so or the rebels, and captured and then executed most of the rest in the following months. The revolt prompted the assembly to pass a “Negro Act” that forbade slaves from growing their own food, assembling in groups, and learning to read.

For the next century and a quarter, whites in parts of the United States with dense populations of slaves (South Carolina had a black majority) feared revolts, fears that periodically grew intense depending on local circumstances. The Security Act and the Negro Act both represent responses to that fear. Peter Wood and other historians have suggested that the Stono Rebellion began when it did in part because a revolt might have faced even longer odds after the Security Act had taken effect.

South Carolina was not the only American colony to enact such legislation. My own (adopted) state of Virginia passed a similar measure in 1632 over fears of Indian attacks on Sundays.

Responding to different sorts of fear, the State of Mississippi recently passed a “Church Protection Act.” Specifically referencing the Charleston church murders of 2015, legislators and supporters argued that churches need not make themselves defenseless in the face of possible attacks.

Several articles about the bill suggest that it simply “allow[s] guns in churches,” but it is not quite that simple. The law states that the “governing body of any church or place of worship may establish a security program by which designated members are authorized to carry firearms for the protection of the congregation of the church or place of worship.” Such governing bodies may designate individuals who can then obtain a license that will enable them to carry concealed weapons on church property. Guns laws are not my specialty, but a key component of this legislation seems to be that designated individuals would not have to undergo the training necessary to obtain a normal concealed carry permit. From the statute it seems that a person with such a permit could not carry weapons into other churches without a special concealed carry license, and places of worship — like other private institutions — retain the ability to ban guns from their premises. Those with a greater understanding of these issues are invited to comment below.

Compared to the 1739 Security Act, the Church Protection Act is a pretty moderate piece of legislation. After all, it does not require all white men to bring their firearms to church. It only gives churches the option to design armed-defense programs.

Perhaps I should mention that as a professor of religious studies from the Northeast, I do not belong to a pro-gun demographic. As someone who has never owned or fired a gun, I’m uncomfortable at the sight of guns. It doesn’t bother me that most of my former-military neighbors probably have guns in their homes. And in Virginia, persons with a concealed carry permit may take their weapons to church for “good and sufficient reason,” whatever that means. So it’s not unlikely that some individuals carry in my local church as well.

It goes without saying that guns are an intensely polarizing issue. About a quarter of Americans support a complete ban on private gun ownership. Such individuals either have never read the Constitution or could do without it. Perhaps another quarter opposes most any restrictions on law-abiding citizens. Many others, however, recognize that the Second Amendment gives people the right to own firearms but favor intelligent restrictions that regulate the exercise of that basic freedom.

On the face of it, institutions have a basic right to protect their premises. Legislation that prevents law-abiding citizens from defending themselves in certain places probably makes gun violence in those places more likely. Surely criminals prefer to attack unarmed individuals. In some states, churches have been among those places. Carl Chinn estimates that there have been 626 violent deaths in American places of worship since 1999. With or without guns, large churches should have detailed security plans in place. The idea that churches might have armed security guards to deter violence is, on the face of it, not the worst idea pertaining to guns out there.

At the same time, the legislation seems misguided to me in other respects. I can understand why both churchgoers and legislators would be fearful after the Charleston mass murder. Still, the response of encouraging churches to designate members to carry firearms in church stokes the fears of some while calming those of others.

The bigger problem is that such solutions do little to address the more pervasive problem of gun violence in America. While massacres in Charleston or Newtown stick in our collective memory, there are roughly 8,000 firearm homicides in the United States each year. Although the rate of firearm murders, along with other forms of violent crime, have fallen dramatically since the early 1990s, people kill a lot of people with guns in the United States. The most pressing issue regarding gun control, from my vantage point, is how we make it harder for people who intend to commit crimes to obtain guns.

Simply on a visceral level, I don’t like the idea of guns in church. Sounds a bit too much like live by the sword, die by the sword. It doesn’t especially worry me that some members of my congregation might bring their concealed weapons, but I don’t like the idea of governments encouraging individuals to do so. Makes me think of the Stono Rebellion and early Virginian fears of Indian attacks. It’s not that white South Carolinians or white Virginians had nothing to fear. Their fears weren’t groundless, but they were misplaced and misdirected.


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