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Churches weigh OKing guns on premises
Fine for carrying weapon where banned lessened to $100
The Rev. Rodney Lackey of Antioch Baptist Church in Gainesville, right, shakes hands with Deacon Clarence Perry after Sunday services in Gainesville. Lackey said his congregation made a unanimous decision to not allow guns in the church following the new gun law that went into effect July 1, allowing firearms in churches that give the OK. - photo by JOSHUA L. JONES

Churchgoers in Gainesville remain divided about the state’s sweeping new gun law that took effect July 1.

Under what has been dubbed the “guns everywhere” law, houses of worship can choose whether to allow licensed holders to carry concealed weapons on their premises.

This “opt-in” provision leaves each church to make up its own mind, though some are receiving guidance from regional and national leaders.

For example, Terry Walton, senior pastor at Gainesville First United Methodist Church, said he is adhering to the advice of the North Georgia Conference of the United Methodist Church in barring guns from his parish.

Walton believes houses of worship should remain a safe haven from the wild ways of the world.

And that stance seems to befit his congregation.

“I think it’s ridiculous to have guns in churches ...” said member Doug Stewart. “I don’t think Jesus would attend a church like that.”

Stewart said penalties for breaking the church’s wishes are no deterrent and need to be strengthened.

The penalty for license holders who violate a church’s decision is no more than a $100 fine. They cannot be arrested. Those carrying without a permit face misdemeanor charges.

“The gun lobby has so much going for it,” Stewart said.

Members of Lakewood Baptist Church expressed mixed feelings about the new law.

George Dutcher said he didn’t understand the need for people to carry their weapons to Sunday prayer services.

“It’s not the O.K. Corral,” he added.

But Ann Gamble, seen passing out church bulletins, said guns might be needed for safety reasons.

The prevalence of mass shootings at schools, churches and other public places across the country has many like her fearing the worst will one day hit home.

“It’s sad that it’s come to this,” she added, “but society has made it that way.”

While leaders of Episcopal and Roman Catholic churches across the state have advised their members against bringing guns to services, Baptist churches tend to operate more autonomously, with each left to determine its own path forward.

Lakewood’s pastor, Tom Smiley, said he is a proud supporter of the Second Amendment, but he is unsure whether the church will ultimately allow guns inside.

Smiley said he would be meeting with church leadership soon to discuss the issue and expects to make a decision in the coming weeks.

At Antioch Baptist Church, a predominantly African-American congregation, members roundly opposed allowing guns inside.

The Rev. Rodney Lackey Sr. said church leaders were unanimous in their opposition to the law, describing it as a line they would not cross.

“Our decision is no,” he said firmly. “If you can’t trust God’s protection in church, then where can you?”