Of all the ideas floated by the gun forces after the Connecticut school murders, the most incongruous and the one with the silliest history but probably the least harmful is to encourage worshipers to pack heat when they go to church or the synagogue.
Naturally, it's one of the first laws enacted by the first Republican legislature in Arkansas since 1874. By lopsided margins, both legislative houses passed the Church Protection Act of 2013, which repeals the state's ban on guns in houses of worship and leaves it up to each church or synagogue to decide if it wants lethal weapons and, if so, how many and in whose hands — the preacher's, the deacons', the best marksman's, or everyone's.
The speaker of the Arkansas House, who passes for a rationalist in the new Republican majority, opposes guns at church but he is fine with the bill since it lets each church decide. The bill did not carry so much tomfoolery that Governor Beebe couldn't abide it, so he said he would sign it.
Having gotten the fear of God at a country Baptist church, I think I would not have wanted anyone armed when certain subjects came up at Sunday evening worship, like infant immersion, the baptism of the Holy Ghost or glossolalia. Feelings could run high. Those matters, I'm told, are no longer much contended, having been replaced by how Jesus might have felt about gays and Muslims and whether He might have admired or hated gunplay.
The last is what makes guns in church so incongruous. The sanctuary of peace armed to kill? Sure, there's the verse in Matthew where Jesus says "For I did not come to bring peace, but a sword" — a passage loved by the NRA — but flustered ecclesiastics have said that, in context, the verse should not be interpreted as Jesus advocating violence. After all, look at all of Jesus' teachings about peace and his rebuke to Peter when a disciple drew his sword and whacked off the ear of the high priest's envoy who came to arrest Jesus. "Put your sword back in its place," Jesus said, "for all who draw the sword will die by the sword."
I frankly don't know what He meant either time.
The plainest thing about arming people in church is that it will not make church any safer, but the good thing is that it might be only marginally more dangerous with armed worshipers coming to the sanctuary on the lookout for trouble. Homes have not been made safer by the presence of guns. Studies have shown that people in homes where guns are kept are far more likely to be injured or killed than in homes where they are absent. Guns are fired far more often in accidents, domestic murders and suicide attempts than are fired in self-defense. You don't need studies. Every day's paper tells you that. It will be the same at churches, government buildings, bars or wherever guns are sanctioned.
If people had carried concealed weapons in the suburban Kansas church where the antiabortion madman Scott Roeder put a bullet through the head of Dr. George Tiller while he was ushering worshipers to their seats, would Roeder have been stopped? Suspicion that people in a church are armed won't deter people who go there to kill and die, like the young man at Sandy Hook, Conn. A blazing shootout like you see in video games and movies is a far more thrilling way to die than shooting yourself.
But if every single person had to be armed to the teeth maybe it would be different. After all, that is in the full spirit of the Second Amendment, which was enacted to protect Southern states' right to keep militias to put down slave rebellions and runaway slaves and, after the Civil War, to punish uppity black men or keep them from voting.
If the Arkansas legislature is serious about church safety, it should follow that example. To be helpful, here is a template: South Carolina's law, enacted shortly before the Revolution, which required all white men to go to church on Sunday and at Christmas armed with a long rifle, powder and a pair of horse pistols, and fined them heftily if they did not.
Whereas, it is necessary to make further provisions for securing the inhabitants of this province against the insurrections and other wicked attempts of negroes and other slaves within the same, we humbly pray his most sacred majesty that it may be enacted, and be it enacted by the Hon. William Bull, Esq., lieutenant-governor and commander-in-chief over his majesty's province of South Carolina, by and with the advice and consent of his majesty's honorable Council, and the Commons House of Assembly of this province, that every white male inhabitant of this province (except travelers and such persons as shall be above 60 years of age) who, by the laws of this province, is liable to bear arms in the militia of this province, either in times of alarm or at common musters, who shall, on any Sunday or Christmas day in the year, go and resort to any church or any other place of divine worship within this province, and shall not carry with him a gun or a pair of horse-pistols, in good order and fit for service, with at least six charges of gunpowder and ball, and shall not carry the same into the church or other place of divine worship, every such person shall forfeit and pay the sum of twenty shillings, current money, for every neglect of the same ...
Note to bill drafters: Insert Governor Beebe's name where it alludes to "His Majesty," King George II.