As readers of this blog know, the Arkansas legislature passed a “church carry” bill a couple of weeks ago that the governor has now signed into law. The bill allows churches the option to let licensed, trained members carry in church but leaves church carry illegal by default. Now two legislators are proposing their own version of “church carry.” Unfortunately, their bill is aimed at limiting gun and religious freedom, not expanding it.
The bill is HB1284. It is sponsored by Rep. Reginald Murdock and Rep. Darrin Williams. Murdock voted against The Church Protection Act on the floor; Williams did not vote. Their bill would require churches that allow their members or some of their members to carry to post signs on their external doors that tell entrants “someone might be carrying a gun in here.” And not just any sign — a sign that is at minimum 8×10 inches in size. However, this law would make churches the only entities in Arkansas that are required to post when concealed carry is allowed. Furthermore, it raises many constitutional questions — does the state have the authority to put this mandate on religious organizations? Does this law violate the principles of equal protection? Is this bill essentially a tax on those who wish to exercise their constitutional rights? These are the types of questions I asked Rep. Murdock in a fairly lengthy phone interview this morning.
To begin, Murdock said he is proposing the bill for two reasons: 1. To inform churchgoers about the recent change in Arkansas law and 2. To provide churches with ‘charitable immunity’ from gun-related incidents.
“If you’ve been a parishioner of that particular church or you come in from out of town and you know the law to be what it was and now that it’s changed, I think it’s an informational or educational part of it that says this has changed. That’s what the signage part is for. The other part is charitable immunity. If you attend a church that chooses to opt into this law, then as a parishioner, you have a right to know is my church, how my church is liable, if my church is liable, and under what conditions that liability exists.”
I am no attorney, but I was under the understanding that churches already had charitable immunity. According to Rep. Murdock, this is not the case:
“No, it does not already exist. Prior to this, the church was on a list of a few…entities where guns were not allowed. So even those with permits were not allowed to carry them in so charitable immunity did not exist for as law protected that…so if someone brought them, it became a situation of liability and it was not defined. It was defined only by the law said ‘don’t do it’…what this does is it says there is a now a law that allows for you [to carry] and this gives the individuals information on how they’re covered and under what conditions and terms it applies to them.”
“If you go to church and someone negligently starts shooting and your church has opted into this, you have a parishioner have a right to know ‘Where am I liable? Is my church liable? Am I individually liable?’ That whole piece of information. I like to call it an education piece. It doesn’t change the bill, it doesn’t challenge the bill, it just gives the general public and those who have to live with this more information.”
(I don’t recall the last time a concealed carry permit holder shot anyone in Arkansas, so I am not sure this scenario carries any practical relevance, but it was an interesting thought.)
As for the constitutional concerns, Rep. Murdock said he doesn’t have any:
“I’ve heard that side of the issue, but what I continue to say is what I said before is that this is just information…you’re not violating their constitutional rights. This just became law. If this happens in schools…there needs to be some education piece, albeit signage or notification or some indicator to the general public that we have changed the law. We now allow this whereby we didn’t before and we are just notifying individuals and the general public of this law. You’re not doing anything to anybody. I really don’t understand the question of constitutionality. What are you challenging? We’re just giving information.”
I responded by saying the state should exercise extreme caution when passing regulations that apply to churches. He rebutted:
“If I may, we’re not setting up…that was done by virtue of [The Church Protection Act]. That was done by virtue of the law. The law got into church’s business, if you really want to get technical about it. As it were they were not, in my opinion. But now they are. This legislation is clearing it up to say here’s notification. We’re not getting into the business…we’re more getting into the business of the general public who we should be trying to protect in terms of making them aware. Just simply aware. We’re not taking anything away, we’re not forcing anything. We’re saying make people aware. That should not be an issue. I cannot understand why that’s an issue.”
Our conversation continued for several more minutes — you should listen to the full audio posted below — but my final question for Rep. Murdock was simply this: Many have raised concerns about voter ID laws and called them ‘poll taxes’ because they require citizens to spend money to exercise their constitutional rights — does the same logic apply to this issue? Is this a tax on constitutional rights that will stifle the free exercise thereof? Rep. Murdock’s short answer was “no,” saying the main difference is that voter ID is aimed at individuals while his bill is aimed at entities.
My general opinion is that Rep. Murdock is very much oversimplifying this issue — or, dare I say, “grossly misunderstanding.” While I sincerely appreciate him giving his valuable time to visit with me, his bill would incur significant costs for signs to churches that want to allow their members to exercise their constitutional rights. It does get into the business of regulating churches. It does “force something” on churches, despite his contention. And regardless of intentions, the practical effect of this law is that fewer churches will allow their members to carry because of the cost, intimidation, and bad aesthetics of the signs. The signs might also keep people from going into a church — not exactly a desirable public policy outcome.
In addition, it appears that this bill unfairly targets churches — they would be the only groups in the state required to post signs that they do allow carry. So if a church decides to allow a retired cop to carry a weapon in lieu of hiring a security guard, they’ll have to post 8×10 signs on all of their external doors. The result will be less safety, not more: advertising that people are carrying concealed weapons diminishes the effect of concealing a weapon. And conversely, the most dangerous unintended consequence of this law is that churches who do not allow concealed weapons and thereby do not display signs will become advertised targets for shooters — shooters will know that no one is carrying inside.
HB1284 would mean less safety and freedom for citizens and religious organizations. It would be bad public policy for Arkansas.