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Gun bill’s OK gets mixed reactions from area church leaders

POSTED: March 23, 2014 11:49 p.m.

In a final dash before the legislative session ended Thursday, the Georgia General Assembly passed a bill widely expanding gun rights.

But, language regarding the most controversial aspect of the bill was tweaked and modified by the House and Senate until they agreed on a single version at the last minute. 

The original bill had sought to allow license holders to carry guns in houses of worship, though it was always the intent to give pastors, rabbis, imams and other leaders the choice to bar firearms. 

But this right to say “no” was replaced with a more politically appealing “opt-in” provision. Now, guns remain prohibited in churches, synagogues, mosques and other places of worship unless leaders choose to allow them. 

The maximum penalty for license holders who violate this law is a $100 fine. They cannot be arrested. Those carrying without a permit would face misdemeanor charges. 

Area church leaders had mixed reactions to the passage of the bill, which now awaits the signature of Gov. Nathan Deal before becoming law. 

“Basically, United Methodist churches have declared they are gun-free zones,” said the Rev. Dr. Terry Walton, senior pastor at Gainesville First United Methodist Church. “We want to be a true sanctuary where people can come and feel safe.”

Walton said he isn’t naive about the fact that some parishioners might carry a gun into his church despite his wishes. 

“Our heads aren’t in the sand,” he said. 

But Walton said he fears the prospect of an accidental discharge of a gun in his pews, or a rash reaction on the part of an untrained gun owner who shoots first as a way to defuse a confrontation. 

“I just think we’re setting ourselves up to take something that’s supposed to be a holy place, a sanctuary, set aside and separate, and making it like the world,” Walton said. “I think the world needs a place that is safe.” 

Dr. Tom Smiley, senior pastor at Lakewood Baptist Church in Gainesville, told The Times last month that he’s a strong proponent of Second Amendment rights. 

Additionally, any fears he may have about the threat presented by allowing guns in his church is eased by the fact he hires off-duty uniformed police officers to patrol during Wednesday and Sunday services. 

“We’ve been doing that for years because we feel like it’s our responsibility to help protect our people, especially our children,” Smiley said. “... I don’t have any problem with law-abiding citizens who are properly permitted” bringing guns into the church.


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