JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — A holstered gun sat on top of a Bible on Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant's desk Friday when he signed a law allowing guns in churches, which he said would help protect worshippers from potential attackers.
The Church Protection Act allows places of worship to designate members to undergo firearms training so they can provide armed security for their congregations. It specifies that those designated can carry guns into church buildings and gives them legal protections.
The law also loosens gun permit requirements by allowing people to carry holstered weapons without a permit, making Mississippi the ninth state with such a law, said NRA spokeswoman Amy Hunter.
The Mississippi Association of Chiefs of Police says that part of the bill dismantles the state's licensing system and makes it harder to check if someone with a gun is a violent criminal. Other opponents say it endangers people by putting more guns in untrained hands.
The law strikes a chord in this Bible Belt state where many hunt and shoot for sport.
It's a difficult discussion that can get politicized and very emotional, flattening an issue with more nuance, said Pastor Pat Ward, who leads The Orchard Church in Oxford. People in his congregation see both sides; they are racially diverse, conservative and liberal, some older, some still University of Mississippi students. His church is guarded by a team of experienced law enforcement officials.
"I think in the South people have a certain familiarity with guns and are also strong in their religious beliefs," Ward said. "But we don't always think about the relationship between them. What does our familiarity with guns say about us as people who claim to be following God, who preach about peace and love?"
At the Greater Bethlehem Temple in west Jackson, Pastor Ervin Ricks finds a bullet lodged in the walls about nine times a year. Many in his mostly black congregation of 1,200 have lost family members to gun violence.
That's why worshippers at this church in a high-crime west Jackson neighborhood are told to leave any weapons at the door. Ricks said they leave security to the surveillance cameras and off-duty police officers scanning the grounds.
"I don't know that there's a more dangerous community in Mississippi to live in," said Ricks, whose church doesn't oppose gun ownership because many congregants hunt and shoot for sport. "But we want to help lift it up and show folks the right way to live. It's incumbent on us to say we're Christians and show what that looks like."
The bill was authored by Baptist pastor and state Rep. Andy Gipson, who says it's necessary in light of the massacre of nine parishioners during a Bible study last year in Charleston, South Carolina. He said the law gives small congregations an option to defend themselves against attack.
Only two states — Georgia and North Dakota — prohibit all guns from places of worship, said Taylor Maxwell, a spokeswoman for Everytown for Gun Safety, which advocates for gun safety laws. Eight states prohibit concealed carry permit holders from carrying guns into places of worship; other states leave it up to the place of worship.
At Gipson's church in Braxton, about 40 minutes southeast of Jackson, the surrounding countryside is home to many gun owners and hunters. Neighbors can tell who's shooting by the sound the gunshot makes, Gipson says. It's here that the lawmaker leads a mostly white congregation of about 80 people.
Melissa Sullivan, a member of Gipson's Gum Springs Baptist Church, was carrying a gun during service one Sunday in late March. Most of the congregation carries guns most of the time, including the women, she said. She said she feels safe but isn't naive enough to believe there isn't a threat.
"The bad guys are gonna have a way to get their point across," she said. "We have to have a right to defend our family."