Following the shooting at a church in Charleston Wednesday night that left nine people dead, the debate over firearms in the place of worship has once again been revisited.
While some believe that stricter laws would prevent future tragedies, others feel the solution lies in allowing more law abiding citizens to carry guns in places that are primarily gun-free, such as churches. As the debate rages, some preachers say the issue at hand is nothing new and they have been packing heat for years.
Rev. James McAbee, known as the “pistol packing pastor,” has a little church in the town of Beaumont, Texas, and under the podium, he keeps a loaded .45, ready to protect himself and his congregation from anyone intent on doing them harm. He said that while he has his eyes on God at New Horizons Church, he also has his eyes on the front door from the best seat in the house.
“I know God’s gonna be here,” McAbee told KHOU. “But I ain’t too sure what else might show up in my congregation.”
McAbee said he was shocked that nobody in the South Carolina church had a gun. He also said he believes that every pastor in every church should, and even pointed to verses in the Bible reaffirming his belief.
But MaAbee isn’t the only one in his church that carries a gun. In fact, he said several members of his congregation regularly carry concealed weapons. He said he wouldn’t go so far as to say that nobody could make it through the door and not get a shot off, but he knows they certainly wouldn’t get two.
Some 650 miles away, at the South Plains Church in Levelland, Rev. Eddie Trice said he’s not against his parishioners bringing guns into his church, given they are properly trained and licensed.
“A lot of people debate that different ways,” Trice told the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal. “But in that church in South Carolina, if someone had been armed and shot back, probably that many people wouldn’t have been killed.”
Trice said he has seen what appears to be an increase in mass shootings in recent years, and fears that it isn’t going to get better.
Jim Gerlt, executive pastor of Bacon Heights Baptist Church in Lubbock, said that while he doesn’t like the idea of having armed security guards, he does know that members of his own congregation are packing pistols and are prepared if anything were to occur in their church. He also said they encourage people to speak up when something looks suspicious or just doesn’t feel right.
Rev. Paul Carpenter of the First Christian Church, also in Lubbock, equated the Charleston shooting, which is being investigated as a hate crime, to a terrorist attack, but also pointed out that such a tragedy affords the rare opportunity to address another problem.
“In the midst of the racial tension we felt in our nation,” he said, “the church is in a unique position because of our ethnic diversity to model what it’s like to get along, to seek justice and to be humbly walking with God.”
And over in Atlanta, Pastor Tom Rush and Pastor Baron Mullis do not agree on whether or not guns belong in churches, but do concur that times are different than they once were. Rush said he always left the church doors unlocked in the past, but not anymore. Mullis said that while he’s seen an increase in violence, people have also become more acclimated to it.
But the two pastors are divided on the best solution for keeping churches safe.
“Church members are citizens of Georgia,” Rush said. “They shouldn’t forfeit their Second Amendment rights.”
Last year, Georgia passed a piece of legislation, known as the “Guns Everywhere Bill,” that allowed individual churches to decide for themselves whether or not to allow guns on their property. Rush said yes, while Mullis opted out.
“This is a place of peace,” Mullis said. “This is not a place for guns.”
In fact, Mullis doesn’t want weapons of any kind in his church, not even in the form of armed security guards. He said he believes the response to violence should never be greater violence, and that Christians are not called to safety, but rather discipleship.
But Rush believes that it’s time for churches to take a serious look at security.
“If they’re not going to allow the citizens to carry, then they’re going to have to consider other ways to provide security for their congregants,” he said.
“There are people who feel very strongly that weapons are not appropriate in a church,” Rush added. “They feel like maybe it’s an issue of justice. I think it would be unjust not to protect the innocent.”
In Minneapolis, Larry Cook, pastor at the Real Believers Faith Center, has an armed security team, made up of church members, that has been around for more than eight years.
DeAngelo Parker, a member of the security team, said criminals don’t care if there’s a sign on the door telling them not to bring their guns inside, as demonstrated in Charleston.
“Criminals are not going to follow the law,” Parker told KARE.
Church member Berniece Merchant, who carries a concealed weapon, said that while God speaks the language of love, not everyone believes in God.
Cook said that although he has received criticism for allowing guns in his church, he feels it’s their responsibility to protect all those who are present, and that tragedies like the one in Charleston only serve as a reminder of what an easy target churches can be.