Churches The Next Battleground In Post-Tucson Gun Rights Debate

WASHINGTON -- The shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) and 18 others in Tucson nearly three weeks ago may have seemed like the sort of incident that would incite a push for stronger gun-control laws. But in certain parts of the country it's had just the opposite effect, inspiring increased sales of firearms and new legislative efforts to expand gun rights.

The most remarkable recent illustration of this trend could be Georgia, where a state-level campaign has begun invoking the Tucson shootings to advance legislation that would permit firearms in churches, synagogues, mosques and the like.

Earlier this week, Bobby Franklin, a Republican member of the Georgia State Assembly, filed House Bill 54. The legislation, according to an assembly official, literally crosses out language in the current law that lists "a place of worship" as an "unauthorized location" for a person to carry "a weapon or long gun." Other locations where firearms are prohibited, locations that Franklin's bill leaves untouched, include government buildings, courthouses, jails, and state mental health facilities.

Considering that Franklin is the lone sponsor of the bill, the prospects for passage seem remote. Yet this is not the first time Georgia has taken on the issue, and there exists a grassroots campaign interested in Franklin's underlying principle. The group GeorgiaCarry.org, for example, has lost a legal challenge to the prohibition of firearms in places of worship in a ruling handed down by a district court.

The organization Georgia Gun Owners, meanwhile, has directly referenced the Giffords shooting to try and push H.B. 54 through the state legislature. Patrick Parsons, the group's executive director, proclaimed that Georgians were "literally one Jared Loughner away from a major massacre ... in one of our places of worship." More obliquely, Pastor James Brown, Jr., of Barnesville, Ga. recently recorded a video for the group in which he proclaimed that worshipers would be "sitting ducks" should "violent gun-wielding thugs" burst into their church.

"Criminals don't care what laws you put in place to stop them," GGO spokeswoman Ashley Rodriguez wrote in an email to The Huffington Post. "A law on a piece of paper doesn't matter to them. Someone who wants to hurt others will find a way to do it. Someone could walk into a place of worship today and harm a lot of people...and the government says I can't carry to stop the thug? That's wrong."

Currently, H.B. 54 is working its way through the judiciary committee dealing with non-civil issues, according to an official with the Georgia state assembly. Since its introduction on Monday, it has already been read on the assembly floor twice, on Tuesday and Wednesday. Rodriguez insisted that newly-elected Gov. Nathan Deal (R) would sign the law should it come to pass. A call to the governor's office was not immediately returned.

Regardless of whether the state legislature passes the measure or Deal signs it, the push to carry firearms in places of worship has become one of the more significant fault lines in the gun-policy debate. Of the 48 states that have passed laws allowing citizens to carry certain types of concealed weapons, 20 allow guns to be brought into churches. With a bit of braggadocio, Chris W. Cox, the legislative director of the N.R.A., told The New York Times last year that the number had been six just 20 years ago.

"This just goes back to the 'guns at any time, anywhere and by any person' mentality," said Josh Horwitz, executive director of the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence. "It's what seems to be sweeping some legislatures. The perceived power of the N.R.A has made some legislatures goes crazy ... I'm not sure who wants it or who thinks church is dangerous. But the point is to normalize the carrying of guns in America."

Other states have indeed been swept up in the wave. Last July, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal (R) signed a law allowing holders of concealed-weapons permits who passed an eight-hour tactical-training course to bring those guns into places of worship. In June 2009, a Kentucky pastor famously urged his congregation to bring their firearms to church as part of a demonstration of responsible gun ownership. In Nebraska, lawmakers have proposed putting armed security guards in church in addition to encouraging teachers to carry handguns. In other states -- Kansas, Mississippi, Arkansas and Ohio -- pressure has built behind similar legislation, only to fall short.

The common thread, as Horwitz notes, is the belief that the best antidote to gun violence is gun ownership and, more broadly, that the Obama administration is hell-bent on restricting Second Amendment rights. The latter point has been disproved over time. And despite some anecdotal evidence to the contrary, gun-control advocates argue that the former point is also based on a dubious proposition.

"Concealed-carry laws are pretty lax in most of the country," said Jim Kessler, a former director of policy and research at Americans for Gun Safety. "And the argument for them is that [it] reduces crime ... But look at the numbers. There is absolutely no difference in crime rates ... It hasn't reduced crime anywhere."