A combination of bad weather and limited testimony cut short what could’ve been a contentious forum weighing the right to bring guns into churches, part of Republican lawmakers’ long-running efforts to eliminate Missouri’s “gun-free zones.”
As part of a recurring issue concerning public testimony during hearings in the 2021 session, only one witness showed up to testify before the committee Monday because of a mix of COVID-19 precautions. Forty-one people submitted statements online, with an overwhelming majority — 39 of the 41 — opposing the bill.
Bustling lawmakers and staff — many of whom have had to announce positive COVID-19 tests since the beginning of the session — are often seen not wearing masks on the premise, as Cole County does not have a mask mandate.
Tyler McClay of the Missouri Catholic Conference was the only in-person witness and testified against committee House Bill 359, which alters the restrictions around concealed carry weapons in religious establishments.
“(If) you want to get an archbishop mad,” he said, “tell him what he has to do with his cathedral.”
Gun-free zones are areas where firearms are federally prohibited with or without a permit. The bill would remove churches from that category.
House Bill 359 — led by freshman state Rep. Ben Baker, R–Neosho — is a proposal that guarantees the right to concealed carry in churches to “ensure that constitutional Second Amendment rights aren’t stripped from us just because we choose to attend a church or a place of religious worship,” Baker said.
Baker credited his carrying of the bill to a 2007 high-profile church shooting in his hometown of Neosho that resulted in three deaths and four people wounded.
Current Missouri law dictates that a concealed carrier must have permission from a church leader or someone representing a given religious organization. Baker said the proposal would change the default so that bringing a gun is allowed by law unless the church prohibits it.
Concealed carry weapons can be brought into sport stadiums with a capacity under 5,000 attendees under current state law. Rep. Adam Schnelting, R–St. Charles, questioned whether guns “allowed in a stadium of 5,000 people or less, but not in church,” is fair.
“There’s not a constitutional right to watch Cardinals games,” Rep. Wes Rogers, D-Kansas City said, “so I think that having a firearm outweighs your right to watch Cardinals games.”
The proposal received further pushback from Democratic members of the committee, including Rep. Peter Meredith, D–St. Louis, who reminded the committee of legal issues that can arise from challenging gun-free zones. Several religious organizations in the state have historically opposed bills that they say harms religious liberties.
“So, despite all of the folks that run our churches saying that they want the default position to be no guns,” Meredith said, the bill looks to limit their control and force them to “figure out a separate enforcement mechanism when this criminal penalty goes away.”
Religious leaders have condemned gun proposals allowing people to carry concealed firearms in church without permission from clergy before, with a St. Louis’ Catholic archbishop even threatening to sue on freedom of religion grounds after a 2018 house bill looked to allow concealed weapons in places that are currently designated gun-free zones by federal law.
Rep. Keri Ingle, D–Lee’s Summit, said she was concerned about the legality of the proposal, as well as the potential risks in congregations having to advertise gun prohibitions on their property.
“One of the things that I’ve heard time and time again, is that when there are signs posted saying ‘no guns on the premises,’” she said, “that it opens that facility back up to being attacked.”
McClay said most churches favor their own contingency plans, as evident by the slew of submitted online testimony.
“I don’t know if any priests or bishops have signs up saying no guns in my parish,” he said. “That’s going to be an interesting legal question actually as to whether that would be compelled speech.”