A violent hall pass

opinion by Scott Shackelford
Scott Shackelford is a former editorial page editor for a Northwest Arkansas newspaper. He lives in Fayetteville.

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Whether we should allow guns into our places of worship is as much a test of the faith and goodwill we put into our communities as it is how far each of us is willing to go to protect our friends, family and self from the worrisome thought that danger might someday inhibit even God’s home on earth.

In any case, the time to form an opinion is now. On Jan. 23, the Arkansas Senate Judiciary Committee unanimously backed legislation that would make concealed weapons legal in Natural State churches. Passage may already be assured.

Senate Bill 71, referred to as the Church Protection Act of 2013, would give churches the right to decide whether guns would or would not be allowed on church property. Sen. Bryan King, R-Green Forest, who is sponsoring the legislation, believes his proposal makes sense, as churches have been the victim of random acts of violence before. Besides, he argues, in Arkansas many churches are of the rural variety, and as such several miles away from the nearest police station.

Arkansas legislators have previously tried – including King, in 2011 – and failed to get similar legislation on the books. In the past, Democratic legislators have seemed to stand in the way of such ideas, but with Republican majorities in both state houses, it appears King’s wish is in good standing. Even Gov. Mike Beebe has already signaled his comfort with the idea and, although officially neutral, he would probably sign the bill into law should it reach his desk.

But the question remains: Is that such a good thing?

Obviously conservatives, from King to the National Rifle Association, would be fast to offer a first and a second, and not just because this proposal means to expand Second Amendment freedoms in Arkansas – although that is a big part of the reason this legislation is likely to win approval.

Detractors owe it to themselves to hit the pause button long enough to study where conservative voices are coming from. Republicans abhor the taking of innocent life via gun violence just as much as Democrats (as if such a thought actually needs saying) and they find the thought of watching a son or daughter, wife or husband, be shot and die beside them – while at church, no less – about as terrible a thought as could be. And since crazy people with guns seem to be in vogue these days, the idea of arming oneself as a last means of defense might seem the only alternative.

So, I get it.

I get that people are scared and reacting in ways rational (and irrational) to protect their lives and liberty from danger. Even though the chances of such a tragedy being visited upon your family during worship services is a statistical abstraction, I get human nature. I understand the notion that one need never apologize for taking a calculated risk, even if said risk is by its very nature more likely to bring about some type of injury or accident than the alternative reality, the one where parishioners choose to leave their dangerous firearms out of the picture.

And what about that alternative reality – the one where firearms are supposed to be off-limits in our schools and our houses of worship? Are we all entirely ready and willing to give up on the notion that our Second Amendment, though important, should not stretch so far that it blots out those human scenes when humanity – to be in touch with their own humanity – are supposed to shed themselves of their fears and concerns and join hands with their community for a few minutes of shared worship?

Carrying a gun into any public place is a way of admitting that you don’t trust the community you live in very much. It suggests that, after careful consideration, you would prefer to spend time in God’s House by putting your faith in a handgun – not the Almighty, and certainly not in the suspicious-looking person a few pews over.

Second Amendment supporters might counter that people have a right to protect themselves. Arkansas liberals might retort by saying keeping guns out of public places – like the legislation President Obama will soon be proposing would help accomplish – is what we should be debating.

The GOP might counter that gun ownership is sacred. The left might respond by saying an individual’s right to walk into a movie theater, or a schoolhouse, or a church without worrying about gun violence is another important and inalienable right, and that answering guns with more guns is to perpetuate a situation that, in a country already overflowing with guns, is but an example of extreme irrationality.

Are we really protecting our churches from harm if we fill them up with concealed firearms? In a nation populated with more than 300 million firearms, is an expansion of gun rights really the best answer the state of Arkansas can develop? Or is threatening the unforeseen with a bullet the limit of any legislative remedy in our home state? This, while in Washington D.C. the White House talks of limiting access to assault weapons and the large magazine clips capable of destroying dozens of lives in mere seconds. Is one side entirely correct and the other thoroughly wrong? Is it possible to reach even a smattering of a solution in a nation as gun-crazy as ours?

It seems our churches will soon be filled with folks carry concealed weapons. The person doing the carrying may well feel safe and secure with such a stealth physical reassurance, but I fear such faith will elude a majority of us. Our nation’s violent nature requires difficult remedies.

This is not a peaceful remedy. It is a hall pass for more violence.