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Mississippi Residents Divided Over Guns In Churches Law

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

In Mississippi, a bill that would allow residents to carry firearms into places of worship is one step away from becoming law. The Mississippi Church Protection Act was approved by the state legislature and now awaits the governor's signature. Some churchgoers are adamant that such a law would enhance their security. Others argue guns have no place inside a house of worship. Mississippi Public Broadcasting's Paul Boger reports.

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UNIDENTIFIED CONGREGANTS #1: (Singing) Great Redeemer Lord at (unintelligible)...

PAUL BOGER, BYLINE: Gum Springs Baptist Church looks a lot like many rural churches in Mississippi. It's a long skinny building with a large white steeple with a well-kept cemetery out back. Last Sunday, the parking lot was full. Walk closer to the doors and you can hear the hymns swell.

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UNIDENTIFIED CONGREGANTS #1: (Singing) Glorious...

BOGER: The predominantly white congregation in Gum Springs is the home of pastor Andy Gipson. He's the Republican state representative that introduced the Mississippi Church Protection Act. Under the bill, places of worship could designate members to undergo firearms training and carry guns during religious ceremonies. In addition, all worshipers would have the right to carry a holster-concealed weapon without a permit.

After the service, Gipson says these are challenging times, and churchgoers need to protect themselves.

ANDY GIPSON: As I introduced it, I thought about our congregation. I thought about children here and infants. And we saw the church shooting up in South Carolina. And unfortunately, I wish we didn't have to think about this, but we do have to think about it.

BOGER: What Gipson doesn't mention is that the bill would also have the effect of enabling people to carry guns in holsters without a concealed-weapons permit. It's an expansion of last year's state law that allowed people to carry guns and purses and briefcases without a permit. Melissa Sullivan is a member of Gipson's church.

Do you currently feel uncomfortable...

MELISSA SULLIVAN: No...

BOGER: ...Or unsafe...

SULLIVAN: ...Not at all.

BOGER: ...In the church?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: I do not.

SULLIVAN: Not at all.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: No, I don't.

BOGER: Do you carry a gun?

SULLIVAN: Yes, I do.

BOGER: Are you carrying one right now?

SULLIVAN: I am. I feel safer knowing that if there should be a threat come on my territory that - you know, that I know how to take care of that.

BOGER: About 30 minutes north of Gum Springs Baptist Church New Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Mississippi's capital city of Jackson.

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UNIDENTIFIED CONGREGANTS #2: (Singing) Bless (unintelligible)...

BOGER: Here, the guns-in-church bill is much less popular with the predominantly black congregation. Pastor Lorenzo Neal has spoken against the measure on several occasions. He says bringing guns into the sanctuary will not make anyone safer.

LORENZO NEAL: I actually believe it may create a greater sense of anxiety because now people are unaware who may be carrying a weapon. And the church is a place where people are expected to come and fellowship and love and not have to worry about their safety per se.

BOGER: Church member Susie Reynolds says she puts her safety in God's hands.

SUSIE REYNOLDS: Our sanctuary is this holy ground. This is holy ground - Christ. So that is who we put our faith in, not in man saying this is a safety measure for us.

BOGER: The Mississippi Association of Chiefs of Police opposed the concealed-carry provision of the measure. Republican Gov. Phil Bryant is widely expected to sign the Mississippi Church Protection Act into law soon. For NPR News, I'm Paul Boger in Jackson, Miss. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.